Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Potentially Tense Canaries by Andy Scheer

Perhaps their experience with spell-check had made the canaries tense. They flew at me off the page, daring me to discover their sentence’s original meaning, before spell-check and its minion, “suggest word replacement,” had their way.

The sentence taunted me; what could it mean? Nothing in the manuscript I’d been editing hinted at the problems posed by Question 5:
5. What potential tensions canaries from a transition in mower, authority, responsibility and promise as we see with Abraham and Isaac?

I poured over the sentence, my curiosity peaked.* What had spell-check wrought?

I started with the easier word, “mower.” My mind recalled, then rejected the old joke:
Q: What do you get if you run over a canary with a mower?
A: Shredded tweet.

The context suggested the author had meant “power.” But canaries? What potentially could make them tense? I noted the problem in my “questions for author” document and moved on, hoping my subconscious would solve a problem that could only be computer induced.

Spell-check is wonderful. I use it—but I don’t trust it, especially if I’ve not given the document a line-by-line, word-by-word reading. Otherwise you end up with a paragraph like this, from a nonfiction proposal that once came my way:
I remember at the age of twenty-one thinking surly marriage was eminent and my prince charming was right around the corner. With each passing birthday I would try to quite the ache in my heart with the thought “maybe this year.”

Perhaps if she didn’t want a marriage that stood out so much, she wouldn’t be feeling surly. But I decided to quite my objections. Maybe I was the one being surly, condemning a writer for three correctly spelled typos in one short paragraph, not counting the lack of capitalization.

Then I turned the page and saw this:
I was like many eighteen year old girls when I graduated from high school. When I walked down the isle with my diploma in hand, my sights were set on the next exciting chapter of my life, college.

Aisle not be reading further, I thought. It’s no good atoll.

A half-hour later, my subconscious did its job and I returned to the canaries. With my editing knife, I cut them in two, then switched the order of two letters. Canaries = can arise.
5. What potential tensions can arise from a transition in power, authority, responsibility, and promise, as we see with Abraham and Isaac?

The sentence made sense, even if spell-check didn’t care.

* Yes, they’re intentional.


Rick Barry said...

Andy, ewe did a grate job! Eye could pitcher that righter walk king around a dessert isle with his gnu diploma. Yes, ewe make sum excellent points hear! Tanks a lot!


Timothy Fish said...

Grammar checkers leave so much to desire. I'm always amazed and frustrated at how many mistakes are left for me to correct after all of the flagged spelling and grammar problems are resolved. It is nearly impossible to spot everything, but I've seen some authors who clearly don't know what they should be looking for.

Linda Glaz said...

Checker is a great starting point, but so many submissions have these mistakes all through them. One hint I give people is to read their submissions out loud to themselves. Catches so many more.

Diana Flegal said...

Thank you Andy and Rick... both made me LOL. Linda, that is the advise I stress the most. But I am, at times, an offender myself.

Joanne Sher said...

Sooo funny!! And what a great "living example" of the issue.

Jeanette Levellie said...

You crack me up! So glad you figured it out. I use spell check, but don't rely on it. Reading aloud and having others read with critical eyes are the best boo-boo catchers I've found.

Wish my high school had given us isles to walk down!

Davalyn Spencer said...

This sounds like a lesson I teach my college students on trusting spell-check. Great fun.

Andy Scheer said...

To me, it's a matter of professionalism. Sure, a full-length manuscript will contain a couple typos.
But a query, the opening pages of a proposal, and certainly the first page of the first chapter should represent a writer's best work. Easily caught errors of grammar and spelling in those places send a message that the writer either lacks skill or doesn't care. In a competitive market, that's fatal.