Writing AdviceWriting, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2013

Little Words Are Important Too

In every genre, we tend to pass over the "little words" as we write. We are more fascinated with our choice of the perfect adjective or the most unusual verb. These "little words", however, are especially important for new writers or ESL writers because the wrong "little word" can totally change the meaning of what you are trying to say. It can even be catastrophic.

"Little word" use can produce proper diction or correct grammar. Using the right one will help you produce writing that is more accurate and deliver communication that is the clearest it can be.

So how does a writer check for the use of those sometimes tricky "little words"? What should you know to make sure you are not committing a major faux pas with your use of what are words that everyone should understand so easily? Here are some examples I've found in actual pieces I've edited.

  1. Words can be spelled correctly, but mean something totally different than you intended. These mistakes won't be picked up by Microsoft Word® spellcheck because the words are spelled right. Sometimes these words will have letters reversed to produce entirely different words, such as "peel" vs. "peal"; "does" vs. "dose"; "form" vs. "from"; or "breaking" vs. "braking". These words all have much different meanings.
  2. Sometimes letters can be left out, again producing totally different words than you intended, i.e., "her" becomes "he". When an "r" is left out or spacing is different, "your" becomes "you" and "note" becomes "not". Again, these kinds of errors can be hard to spot, and Word won't alert you to them because the software "sees" them as correct.
  3. Even moving letters around or adding a letter can be a problem sometimes. For example, "drooping" becomes "dropping" and "prosperity" becomes "property". Further, "proposition" can become "preposition" , "specious" can change to "spacious" and "through" goes from being a preposition to the noun, "trough". Just think of the difference in meaning or confusion that can result for your reader.
  4. Watch out for words spelled right that are the wrong words. They can even be embarrassing sometimes. Examples of mismatches I've seen are "impotent" for "important", "raped" for "rapid" and "massage" for "message". I 've seen "course" written as "curse" or even worse, so I'm always glad when I spot these problems and fix them for the client. It's not funny if these word mismatches sneak into your dissertation or an academic article you're submitting to a prestigious journal.
  5. Preposition (not proposition) use is also sometimes a problem. The wrong preposition is used, and the result is unclear meaning. Favorite examples I see often are "of" rather than "for" or the reverse or "for" instead of "from" or use of "too" when the meaning should be "to" or even "two". Knowledge is power, so find a good list of commonly used prepositions and study how they are used to produce proper diction. Look for sentence examples as well to understand which prepositions belong where in your sentences. Compile your own examples as you do more of your own writing.
  6. Contractions (not contradictions) can be tricky too. Know the correct spelling of the most common ones. Don't rely on word processing software to be your editor. Especially, know the difference between "its" and "it's". This is a very common error that appears even in sophisticated writing and top publications. Very simply, "it's" means "it is" as in "It is a dog" On the other hand, "its" is a possessive adjective and is placed before a noun, as in "The dog wags its tail." Here's a simple hint: When you can substitute the phrase "it is" for "it 's, then you'll know which spelling to use. Another example is "you're" which means "you are" not "your" — another possessive adjective like in "your books". Another is "they're" vs. "their" or even "there". Know the difference.

I've probably totally confused you by now with all these examples and maybe unnerved you a bit too. There are a lot of details and specifics to remember. That's true. What's important, however, is that you understand that "little word" mistakes often show up surreptitiously in writing, and they can hugely influence how your writing is received and the meaning of what you are trying to say (hopefully they won't ever hugely embarrass you). So how do you catch "little word" errors or hopefully avoid them altogether? It's not easy, but here are a few tricks that can help:

  1. First, learn how "little words" are used in English, especially those that either sound alike or are spelled very similarly. Watch for them.
  2. Learn to recognize the precise differences in "little words" as you read. Then remember them when you move into writing mode. Perhaps start a notebook with ones you use wrongly. Notice preposition use in sentences you read written by authors you respect. Doing that will make you more diligent, both when you write and when you revise.
  3. Check every draft manually and your final version especially for bizarre use of "little words." Read your work aloud if that helps, or mark questionable words as you read. Then check these words further for spelling and/or correct meaning and proper use. If you're not sure, ask someone who does know and take note for the next time.
  4. Learn the basic correct spelling process for contractions. The apostrophe takes the place of letters that are left out. For example, "did not" becomes "didn't" because the "o" is replaced by the apostrophe. Speak the contraction as a formal phrase or write out the phrase to understand the correct spelling of its contraction.
  5. Proofread, Proofread, and Proofread again. Have a friend or editor you trust do the same and seriously note any advice. Then recheck your text and make necessary changes.

There is nothing better then a good pair of eyes to make sure your use of "little words" never trips you up again. The best news is that practice does make perfect. The more you learn and the more you practice the precise use of "little words", the better you'll get at doing it. Eventually their use will become second nature.

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