One of my English professors at UC Berkeley (most likely Prof. Breitwieser) once told me that turning in a first essay that is rife with spelling and grammar errors will leave a permanent bad impression with him or a GSI (graduate-student instructor) who reads it. That admonition, unlike its source, has found a permanent home in the back of my mind, and it comes to the fore whenever I come across an image like this:
Because I have neither personally met nor spoken to 99.99% of all people I “know” on the Internet, my first impression about a person is formed on the basis of their spelling and grammar on their Twitter bio, tweet, Tumblr post, or article on Medium. My YUNiversity colleagues and I are staunch supporters of the idea that how you write says a lot about you. (But we say that as a matter of fact, not as a condemnation.)
Don’t get me wrong: we are far from perfect ourselves. We’ve made our share of embarrassing mistakes, so much so that we made this image:
That confession notwithstanding, here are our five tips for avoiding common spelling and grammar errors:
1. Don’t count on spell check (and disable grammar check)
Technology is great, and spell check can be helpful at times, but we all know that it doesn’t catch everything. To make matters worse, it isn’t even always right. And don’t even get me started on Microsoft Word’s so-called grammar checker. I’m sure you’ve seen a few pictures like the following that attest to its “usefulness”:
Instead of letting a program catch (more like miss) your mistakes, either proofread your writing yourself or …
2. Have someone you trust look it over
Before hitting Send or turning it in by hand, have someone you trust read over your essay, letter, or résumé to see if there are any errors you might have overlooked. If you stare at the same piece of writing for hours, it’s easy to miss typos, awkward phrases, and other mistakes. A fresh set of eyes will catch them immediately. (We wrote about the advantages of having extra sets of eyes examine your writing in a previous article called “Want to Write Better?”) As a bonus, they might even give you suggestions on how to improve your writing.
3. Don’t proofread right after you’ve finished writing
Speaking of having a fresh set of eyes, the worst thing you could do is proofread your writing immediately after finishing it. Because you are so familiar with what you had just written, either your eyes won’t catch the mistakes or your brain will instantly autocorrect your errors and convince your eyes that they aren’t there. The simplest way to avoid this problem is to take a break. Go for a walk. Take a shower. Turn on the television and watch three episodes of your favorite TV show. You’ve earned a break.
Do anything that will take your eyes off the computer screen long enough to wipe the writing from your memory, so the next time you look at it, it will be with fresh eyes. For some people, an hour is sufficient; for others, it’s better to start proofreading the next morning. Find out what works best for you (and plan accordingly, i.e., start on your writing early enough to give yourself the necessary time to proofread).
4. Proofread your essay “backwards”—from finish to start
Those of you who don’t have the luxury of time to implement tip #3 will appreciate this method. You might have procrastinated or underestimated how long the writing was going to take, so you have no time to go for a walk or take a shower … because the writing is due in five minutes. What to do? Instead of living dangerously and turning it in as-is, read your essay “backward.” Read the last sentence of the essay, then read the one above it, and so on. The weirdness of this exercise, combined with how strange each sentence now feels, will make your writing seem “new.” It might not be the most comfortable method, but it is highly effective. Give it a try and see how you like it.
5. Use a dictionary
Some of you who read our article on the usefulness of reading books may remember that one of our staff members has actually been “reading” the dictionary this year. His motive was to learn obscure yet interesting words that he had never seen before, e.g., abapical. When it comes to checking a word’s spelling, there is nothing better than consulting a dictionary. The Internet abounds with dictionaries:
Pick your favorite (or favourite, if that’s how it’s spelled/spelt where you live); just make sure that you don’t misspell any words.
I followed #1 and #3 while proofreading this, but according to Muphry’s Law (which is not a typo), there will be an error somewhere in this article. If you find a spelling or grammar mistake, feel free to point it out.