Both native English-speakers and those who learn the language later can agree on one thing: English is hard! There are many complexities in English, including odd spellings and long lists of exceptions to grammar rules. A new set of problems form when you try to write what you usually say or vice versa. Today, we are going to focus on two mistakes—eggcorns and malapropisms—and how to avoid them.
Mistake #1 – Eggcorns
The first type of mistake has, admittedly, a fun name. Eggcorns are words and phrases that people mishear, and therefore, write down incorrectly. The name is one example. Some writers mistakenly write “eggcorn” instead of “acorn.” Another eggcorn is writing “all intensive purposes” instead of “all intents and purposes.” I saw that mistake several days ago while reading the news online.
If you try pronouncing some of these eggcorns out loud, you will quickly see how they’ve come into being. It is easy to misunderstand someone with the way English-speakers often smash sounds together or cut off the ends of words. It also doesn’t help that English words aren’t always spelled the way they sound (i.e. cough, though, and slough). If you want to see more of these eggcorns, you can visit the Eggcorn Database or watch the video series about eggcorns on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s website.
Mistake #2 – Malapropisms
The second type of mistake is a malapropism. This mistake is common, especially when someone is learning new vocabulary. Malapropisms are words that sound similar, which causes the writer or speaker to switch the words. The switched words can create a lot of confusion because their meanings are nothing alike. I get my favorite malapropism from a novel. The heroine says “indigestion” when she means “indignation.”
Malapropisms are named after the character from an 18th century play. In The Rivals, Mrs. Malaprop regularly mixes up words that sound alike but don’t have the same meaning. If you are curious about it like I was, you can find a transcript of the play on Project Gutenberg’s website.
Precaution #1 – Be Vigilant
Knowing what the mistakes are is a good start, but there are several things you can do to avoid eggcorns and malapropisms in your writing. One action is learning to be cautious in using what you read or hear. Don’t automatically believe that everything is correct. Treat phrases and new words as wrong until proven accurate. Do some research to make sure it’s correct before you start using it in your writing. Assuming is a good way to fall into these mistakes. Question them and be willing to fact-check.
Precaution #2 – Look It Up
Fact-checking in dictionaries and usage manuals is an excellent habit to form. It is one of your greatest safeguards against mistakes. I would suggest depending more on usage manuals than dictionaries because the latter only tells you how words are used, not what is correct standard usage. To save yourself time, you should write down or bookmark any mistakes that you find yourself susceptible to so that you don’t have to waste time looking it up every time you run into it.
Precaution #3 – Avoid Figures of Speech
A final thing you can do is clean up your writing. Don’t use a lot of expressions and figures of speech. Try to use word choice to express your style instead of waxing poetic. If you stay true to your meaning and use plain English, you’re less likely to run into trouble. I know that is easier said than done (see what I did there), but with practice, you can write concisely and clearly without losing any of your meaning.
Eggcorns and malapropisms are mistakes that can trip up writers because of pronunciations and spellings. Words that sound alike or are spelled similarly are easy to mistake for each other. By not trusting what you hear, looking things up, and removing unnecessary phrasing, you can create copy that is free of these two mistakes and easy for your readers to understand. Do you know of any good eggcorns or malapropisms? Share them in the comments!