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A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

So What Does an Art Teacher Know About English Anyway!

Excuses, Excuses! Blame It On the Style Guides

A few weeks ago I was inspired by June Casagrande's column, A Word Please. It appears in the Glendale News-Press, an affiliate of the LA Times. I often clip her columns to read later or to follow up on her inspiration—later, of course.

This particular column was on spelling. You know, stuff like spelling bees and how brilliant kids can humiliate adults in certain arenas. On how Brits spell differently from Americans. That reminded me of how us Americans nurtured on British literature have so many problems with spelling. (I still can't get "grey" right.)

And that reminded me of something else. Youíre going to have to follow me on the way my mind works, one step at a time. Youíre going to have to do it because itís going to make you feel a lot better about how your mind works!

Oh! Where were we? Yes. Spelling! And letís not even talk about syntax or how we use prepositions differently from our English friends.

But Juneís column also reminded me of what a great speller I am. Or thought I was. As a child I was pretty darn good at those spelling bees myself. I got straight As in English and on and on. Then, one day I spelled a word wrong—in an art class of all places! My teacher asked me to look at the word. Nothing came to me but "Duhhh."

Then he asked some of my classmates to look at the word. I can't even tell you what the word was. Maybe something like "definitely" because it had something to do with an "i" and "a." None of my classmates had a clue either. So the teacher says—or rather rants, "See, see? That's why we have dictionaries!"

So he had a point worth taking. But what does an art teacher know about English. Thatís a rhetorical question. Iím sure he had no idea how English would change over the decades. For example, computers didnít exist, so how could he have known about the choices we have with words like ďWeb siteĒ (the New York Timesís version) and ďwebsiteĒ a la the LA Times.

Nevertheless, in that moment my confidence went down the proverbial drain. In this case the drain of spelling awareness. Now, even when I know I'm right, I fear I'm not. Do I remember the spelling the way I did it "before" when I spelled it wrong, or am I remembering the "after" when I had checked to see if I had it right. I canít remember. I go back to the dictionary, maybe for the fifteen time on the same word. Or use my Word Spell Checker. And half the time even it doesnít know!

Geesht. Such a waste of time and brain power.

One of those before and after words for me is "recommendation." Two "c's" and two "m's" or only one "c" and... Well, you get the idea. There are times that Word's spell checker is a Godsend. I have it on autopilot. It doesn't even tell me when I spell "recommendation" wrong. It just corrects it. That I get no practice is probably one of the reasons that I can't remember how to spell it. Someone or something is doing my work for me.

So when people start thinking that because I wrote a book on editing or because I am The Frugal, Smart and Tuned-In Editor on my blog, that I know everything about English, I must own up. I have to check spelling and grammar stuff. I have to do it a lot. Itís partially the fault of a brain full of trivia (yes, some grammar is trivia!), but itís also because English has changed over time.

Some rules that we think of as hard and fast rules arenít rules at all. The well-loved Strunk and White was originally a guide written for the authorís students that included his preferences for writing and people started taking his (strong) suggestions for what he wanted in the papers submitted to him as commandments of Biblical proportions.

Thereís another reason, too. English isnít nearly as rule-oriented as people think it is (or would like it to be!). We get to make style choices. The style designated by the publishers of books is often more stringent that the styles espoused by newspapers. I do both kinds of writing and you expect me keep all those choices straight? Forget it!

I donít and you donít. We donít have to.

We can use something editors call style guides. Chicago Manual of Style is the one I use when Iím writing a book and AP is the one I use when Iím freelancing for newspapers. You can get AP online at

And sometimes I plain donít care. Iíll push two words into one that should be kept separate when Iím writing poetry (and sometimes in my other writing, too); occasionally I use the wrong homonym to add a layer of meaning. The thing is, languages develop. There is a creative aspect to them.

Sometimes I get to choose whatever I darn well prefer because the guides—even the dictionaries!—donít agree. So, Iím sticking with ďe-mailĒ over ďemail.Ē Both are correct. The former makes more sense to me.

The thing is, Iím not trying to convince anyone itís right! That would be a losing battle, anyway.


Tips and Tidbits

(Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a Tidbit that will help authors write or promote better. She will also include a Tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.)

Writers' Tidbit:
Writers interested in their craft know that last-minute edits can mean the difference between success and failure. My new booklet, Great Little Last Minute Editing Tips for Writers, will help all writers, from those who write business letters to those who pen poetry. Find it on Amazon.


Readers' Tip:
Irene Watson edits a site where you can find book reviews of all kinds. It is Reader Views.

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