Silent Knight

What a difference a letter makes

For The Electric Company, Tom Lehrer wrote a song to which all writers should listen:

Who can turn a can into a cane? / Who can turn a pan into a pane? / It’s not too hard to see / It’s silent e

Much has been said about how spelling checkers are the (choose one) savior or bane of writers. They can easily save yore but, butt only if their used with brain attached.

Many words in English change by the addition (or subtraction) of a single letter, and a spelling checker may not recognize which word you want. (Sometimes a grammar checker will know, and several editing programs offer more sophisticated contextual checks, but they’re still, um, human.)

Think about all the words that become unacceptable via a single letter: A friendly “hello” can be made devilish by the omission of a simple “o.” What writer has not inadvertently dropped the “l” in “public,” to much sniggering? Back when typesetters were human, it was rumored that some newspapers banned the word “shift” from their pages, especially around contract time, to prevent an “f” from falling out.

Writers are more frequently using “led” when “lead” was meant, and vice versa. “Led” (rhymes with “bled”) is the past tense of “to lead” (rhymes with “bleed”), but the metal form of “lead” also rhymes with “bled,” so you can see how that happens. (Garner’s Modern American Usage says the use of “led” misspelled as “lead” has reached Stage 2 on the Language-Change Index, still incorrect but seen a lot.)

A little “d” can make something “averse” into something “adverse”; an “e” can make you “loath” to “loathe” something, or turn your “foreword” into something more “forward”; a single “e” does wonders by “lightening” already-bright “lightning”; adding an “n” to the “canon” can make you shoot yourself in the foot with the “cannon”; without an “a,” your “manager” can be just a dog in the “manger.” All of these are common errors that creep into news reports.

Especially when one word is more familiar than another, letters can be added or dropped. The confection replacing cupcakes as the hot item is a “macaron,” a meringue-based sandwich cookie that is frequently and incorrectly spelled “macaroon,” a very different meringue-based cookie usually made with almonds or coconut. (The French version, usually pronounced “mac-a-RAHN,” is also frequently pronounced “mac-a-RUNE,” compounding the confusion.)

Believe us, once you’ve had a “macaron,” you’ll never call them “macaroons” again, especially if your exposure to the latter came only from a can at Passover.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,