or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, January 12, 2008

True Confessions

I don't suppose I'm too much different from most writers in this one regard:

I make mistakes all the time. All the time.

I don't mean the big things. I'm sure the occasional insufficiently supported assertion or overly broad generalization creeps in, but generally speaking, I spend a lot of time on this and do as much research as I can to make sure everything's in order. But the small stuff?

I type really quickly, and sometimes the words flow even faster than the fingers can move, and so I make spelling mistakes of every description: transpositions, deletions, insertions--sometimes I put my fingers in the wrong spot on the keys and type "yjsy" instead of "that". I slap the wrong ending on something and type "something" instead of "sometimes", or even worse--I'm perfectly capable of having my brain switch thoughts in midstream and start out writing "keyboard" and have it end up as "keyboast". I leave bits out: in that first sentence up there, I wrote "I too much different" instead of "I'm too much different", or I just type the wrong word altogether, as in the next sentence, in which I originally wrote "I just around" instead of what I meant to say. I jump around (see?), moving this sentence here, editing that one, and sometimes that causes mistakes to creep in. I'm a titanium-chassised error machine.

But since I have the luxury of reading and re-reading what I've written before and after I post it, I manage to weed out most of these things. People posting comments in other people's blogs don't really have that opportunity: they can re-read, but since I still maintain, as I've said before, that you can't reliably edit your own writing, mistakes slip in and can't be corrected; a comment, for the most part, is set in stone. You can delete it, but you can't fix it. Therefore, as I said yesterday, such things are held to a much lower standard regarding grammar and spelling.

I suppose I'm trying to defend myself against a really stupid mistake I made posting to someone else's blog, namely yesterday's Ask the A.V. Club in The Onion. One of the questions was (obliquely) about spelling reform, and the person answering the question ended with this:

If your fixation on this short story inspires you to get rid of the horrible randomness of the suffixes -able and -ible, we'll be in your debt forever, Shawn.

"I know this one!" I thought, and so I posted a response, because "-able" versus "-ible" is not really as bad as it looks, not altogether random, not quite. Unfortunately, I appeared to say that the word "contemptible" is correctly spelled "contemptable", which I know it is not. A couple of people pointed this out, and rightly so, too. I didn't actually spell the word out (if I had, I would have noticed the mistake immediately), and I could take the weasel's way out by saying that I didn't actually say that that's how the word ought to spelled, if you parse what I wrote in the most nit-picking, Talmudic manner possible, but I'm not doing that. I did make a mistake, and my only defence is that I was writing quickly in a comment and didn't have the time to 1) thoroughly edit it before posting or 2) edit after the fact.

It's not a big deal, except that I really hate to make mistakes. The uncharitable would probably say that I always have to be right, but that's not it, exactly; that suggests that I insist that everything I say or do is de facto correct, when the truth is that if I'm saying or doing something incorrectly, I want to know about it and fix it so that it won't be wrong any more. I think--I hope--there's a difference between the two.

Anyway, would you like to know about "-able" versus "-ible"? Lots of people have trouble remembering which suffix is correct in which instance, because they sound alike. Here are the general rules.

A lot of the time, "-able" is going to be the right choice, because there are at least six times as many "-able" words as "-ible" words in English, partly because we're still forming words with "-able" but no longer with "-ible". When we want to convert a noun or a verb into something to an adjective meaning "capable of" or "tending towards", we use "-able". Still, there are a couple hundred "-ible" words in English, so it's unwise to randomly grab a suffix, or even be entirely confident that one or the other is correct if you don't know for sure.

For the most part, if you remove the suffix and you're left with a freestanding word with the same meaning in a different part of speech (or something that would be such a word if you restored the "-e" or "-y" that was removed, such as "debatable" or "charitable"), then the suffix will be "-able", and you can remember this by noting that "-able" is also a word. This works almost all of the time. The converse is also true: if what's left after the suffix is removed isn't a word, then the suffix is probably "-ible", which also isn't a word. Unfortunately, this pair of rules will not work for all words, such as "capable" or "despicable" on the one hand, and "forcible", "invertible", and "deducible" on the other. As well, there are quirks and irregularities: words of more than two syllables that end in "-ate" lose that ending before taking "-able", such as "demonstrable" and "depreciable", even though by the looks of it they should take "-ible", and this rule isn't always true, either: we have the perfectly good word "demonstrable", but "demonstratable" also exists--it's attested to the in the OED.

The sad fact is that, like all other matters of English spelling, there are so many exceptions that you simply have to learn the words. You can use shortcuts and basic rules, but when it comes right down to it, you pretty much have to memorize everything.


Blogger Kanani said...

At a writing conference, someone once said that blogging was a form of conversation.

It's writing --but it's different. You're channeling your emotions and mood in a way that will be instantly available to everyone.
Inevitably, this will lead to grammatical, spelling and typing errors. Sentences won't be edited for clarity, structure will often be awkward.

So I don't get bothered on blogs when I see mistakes --it's hard to edit your own work even on paper. On blogs, I'm able to let it go.

Saturday, January 12, 2008 3:58:00 AM  
Blogger pyramus said...

If the subject of my blog were anything but what it is, I might be able to take that tack. But if I were to leave typos and grammatical errors in my blog, people would rightly say, "Who's he to criticize someone else's spelling when he makes all these mistakes himself?" So no dice. I have to make it as immaculate as I can.

Otherwise, I more or less agree with you. I don't hold bloggers to nearly as high a standard as I do professional writers. Stands to reason. I still like to see good grammar and spelling, but I'm not going to berate the average blogger. I might point out an interesting or illustrative mistake, but I won't be vituperative about it, as I would be with professional, paid writers and/or their editors.

Monday, January 14, 2008 7:19:00 PM  

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