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March 24th, 2009

About that proofreading quiz

by Barbara Wallraff

Two weeks ago I gave you a proofreading quiz. The challenge was to tell me how many words in a four-paragraph-long passage were misused -- for instance, “particulate” in the sentence “The subject of this quiz is spelling errors of a particulate kind.” The word “particulate” exists, of course, but in context it doesn’t make sense. The word I meant -- or would have meant if I hadn’t been trying to trip you up -- was “particular.”

So, how many words did I misuse? You’d think there would be only one right answer to that, wouldn’t you? Before the column appeared, I thought so too. I thought the answer was 45. But once contest entries began rolling in, I realized I should also accept 44. And 30.

I say 44 because one of the misuses was “hair,” appearing as part of the adjective “hair-brained.” The etymologically correct adjective is “hare-brained” -- meaning having a brain like a rabbit’s, not a brain made of hair. However, at least one major dictionary, Webster’s New World, gives “hairbrained” as well as “harebrained” without clearly specifying that the latter is standard (even though it is!). So I don’t suppose I can hold it against anyone on whom “hair” didn’t register as a misuse.

I say 30 because gremlins got into my text at one newspaper and turned the four paragraphs of the contest into six. Though many entries I received from that metropolitan area gave me a count for all six paragraphs as well as for the first four, some readers assumed, reasonably enough, that I was asking for what I wanted and that the extra two paragraphs were there just to trick them. So I’ll accept as a correct answer the four-
paragraph count of 30 misuses.

I enjoyed learning a little bit about many of the people who responded. Some told me they’re in their eighth decade of life. Others are in their second: Teachers assigned the quiz to whole classes of grade-school, middle-school and high-school students -- who did well on it. Good job, kids! Some respondents really got into the spirit, embedding their answers in text densely packed with their own misused words. Gayle Mazzocco, of Royal Oak, Mich., wrote: “Eye laughed it! Their wore 30 mistooks, I belie, in the for pomegranates. Please inter me in the drawing.”

Others wanted to share mistakes of the “particulate” kind they’d seen elsewhere. For example, Patrick R.M. Toomey, of Kingston, Ontario, wrote: “Just last week I sent a letter to a respected Canadian historical journal remarking on their use, not once but twice, of ‘yolk’ when they meant ‘yoke,’ and pointed out -- as you have done here -- that they need more than an electronic spell-checker to avoid such errors.”

If you’d like to check the answer key to the quiz, you’ll find it in the archives in the library on my Web site, www
.wordcourt.com. It includes notes about words that puzzled sizable numbers of readers. And the randomly chosen winner of the contest for an autographed copy of my book “Word Court” is Lois Taylor, of Kinderhook, N.Y. Lois found all 45 of the words I intended to misuse. Congratulations, Lois -- and congrats, too, to everyone who sent me the -- or a -- right answer.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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