The other day, I was reading John Marsden’s book Everything I Know about Writing, which is a great how-to on developing and maintaining the quality of our written work. Marsden expressed the delight he regularly feels as a high school English teacher observing the generational evolution of language.
Adolescents express themselves by deliberately experimenting with new words and phrases, some of which are picked up by their peers and come to define a generation. What’s ‘cool’ to one generation is ‘rad’ to the next, and pretty much every generation produces or redefines a noun or adjective to label a good-looking person, from ‘beau’ in the 1800s to ‘chick’, ‘hunk’ and ‘cute’ in the last few decades.
On the other hand, children who are learning to use language for the first time communicate in all sorts of novel (and unintentionally imperfect) ways. Marsden remembers one child who turned the word ‘got’ from an informal, past-tense verb into a noun: the child held up a newfound treasure and exclaimed, ‘Look at my got!’
Usually, older people will be amused by and correct a child’s linguistic oddities, and through correction we come to conform in how we use language. But these creative mistakes, appropriations and redefinitions are a form of individual expression: they are products of the human imagination making sense of the world around it.
So maybe we should think twice before condemning a linguistic ‘error’. Why is it that the word ‘overflow’ conjugates as ‘overflowed’ in the past tense instead of ‘overflew’, as in example 1? After all, ‘overflow’ and ‘overflew’ is consistent with ‘outgrow’ and ‘outgrew’. (In my family, we have a running joke of creating new past tense forms for verbs, with sometimes hilarious results.)
In example 2, the writer broke the rules by saying ‘my heart sunk’ instead of writing ‘my heart sank’ (simple past tense), which is not to be confused with ‘my heart had sunk’ (sunk being the past participle). But perhaps one day the words ‘sank’ and ‘drank’ will be obsolete and we will simply use ‘sunk’ and ‘drunk’, whether or not in conjunction with the verb ‘have’.
Still, there’s a reason that adolescents make fewer fumbles than small children, and that adults tend not to experiment with how they speak and write: the conventions of the English language are tools with which we can communicate clearly and meaningfully. We may not mind the errors kids make as they learn the rules and test the boundaries, but a professional writer knows that mistakes are a distraction from the point you’re making. If you want to make a professional impression, your proofreading must be of a high standard.
Typos and Freudian slips show a lack of effort and maturity in your writing process. I recently participated in an online health insurance survey targeted at participants in the Melbourne Marathon festival. I was prompted to express my opinion on whether ‘Health insurance gives me piece of mind’. I would have liked to give the survey copywriter a piece of my mind. What we all want is peace of mind.
The truth about typos is that if enough people make the same mistake, language may evolve to legitimise the corruption. The word ‘stretching’ may be pronounced ‘streching’, but until ‘streching’ is listed in the dictionary as an accepted alternative spelling, this misspelling (see example 4) only makes the writer’s work look sloppy and lowers the publication in the esteem of educated readers. If you don’t have enough respect for your readers to make sure your work is professionally presented, can you blame them if they can’t forgive your bloopers?
I’m a fan of linguistic innovation (like Anthony Burgess’ masterpiece A Clockwork Orange), but I cannot condone linguistic evolution spawned by uninformed or lazy communicators. For the writers of the examples presented here, this humble pedant prescribes judicious use of spellcheck tools and the benefit of proofreading by a second (and trustworthy) set of eyes.
May your creative writing be free from bloopers!
Do you forgive errors when the writer’s meaning is clear? Is the English language evolving or devolving? Share your thoughts in the comments section!
An extract from John Marsden’s book Everything I Know About Writing is available on his website, <johnmarsden.com.au>.
The original version of this article was published as ‘Frustrations of an English Pedant’ in The Australian Writer issue 383 (March–May 2014).