Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Silent Knight: What a Difference a Letter Makes

For The Electric Company, Tom Lehrer wrote a song to which all writers should listen:

Who can turn a can into a cane? / Who can turn a pan into a pane? / It's not too hard to see / It's silent e

Much has been said about how spelling checkers are the (choose one) savior or bane of writers. They can easily save yore but, butt only if their used with brain attached.

Many words in English change by the addition (or subtraction) of a single letter, and a spelling checker may not recognize which word you want. (Sometimes a grammar checker will know, and several editing programs offer more sophisticated contextual checks, but they're still, um, human.)

Think about all the words that become unacceptable via a single letter: A friendly "hello" can be made devilish by the omission of a simple "o." What writer has not inadvertently dropped the "l" in "public," to much sniggering? Back when typesetters were human, it was rumored that some newspapers banned the word "shift" from their pages, especially around contract time, to prevent an "f" from falling out.

Writers are more frequently using "led" when "lead" was meant, and vice versa. "Led" (rhymes with "bled") is the past tense of "to lead" (rhymes with "bleed"), but the metal form of "lead" also rhymes with "bled," so you can see how that happens. (Garner's Modern American Usage says the use of "led" misspelled as "lead" has reached Stage 2 on the Language-Change Index, still incorrect but seen a lot.)

A little "d" can make something "averse" into something "adverse"; an "e" can make you "loath" to "loathe" something, or turn your "foreword" into something more "forward"; a single "e" does wonders by "lightening" already-bright "lightning"; adding an "n" to the "canon" can make you shoot yourself in the foot with the "cannon"; without an "a," your "manager" can be just a dog in the "manger." All of these are common errors that creep into news reports.

Especially when one word is more familiar than another, letters can be added or dropped. The confection replacing cupcakes as the hot item is a "macaron," a meringue-based sandwich cookie that is frequently and incorrectly spelled "macaroon," a very different meringue-based cookie usually made with almonds or coconut. (The French version, usually pronounced "mac-a-RAHN," is also frequently pronounced "mac-a-RUNE," compounding the confusion.)

Believe us, once you've had a "macaron," you'll never call them "macaroons" again, especially if your exposure to the latter came only from a can at Passover.

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Saturday March 10th 2012, 4:25 AM
Comment by: Jeff C.
Delightful way to start a leisurely Saturday morning.
Sunday March 11th 2012, 7:42 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Songs are extraordinary.
And surely you deserve a Thanks for reminding us about these soft but not breakable rules.
Sunday March 11th 2012, 9:24 PM
Comment by: noblsavaj (San Antonio, TX)
Spell checkers do not, in any way, substitute for a good proofreader. Words are more than the sequence of their letters. Errors are not trivial; they erode authority. Daily Beast is a huge example - their haste to hit the screen often leaves them with embarrassing typos. Dropped letters are part of the problem. Thanks for a good column.
Wednesday March 14th 2012, 4:17 AM
Comment by: Marjorie D.
I love picking out the errors, especially in the media. This issue is, of course, compounded by the american version. I still find it hard to write program when I have a programme, for instance...
Saturday March 24th 2012, 7:26 AM
Comment by: Toni L.
With the Visual The Saurus App, the pronunciation we can listen for the word "macaroon" is "mac-a-RUNE," which is for a non-English person like myself a relief. I love those... with "T" ;-)
Friday April 6th 2012, 4:23 AM
Comment by: Somyos S. (Bangkok Thailand)
The pleasant way to learn and study the language.

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