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Pardon Me, But I Misspoke (Or Miswrote)

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on September 5, 2012

Pardon Me, But I Misspoke (Or Miswrote…Whatever!)

By Joanna Campbell Slan

“In cases of legitimate rape…”      JSlanBook

By now, you’re probably sick of hearing that phrase by Todd Akin, the State Representative from Missouri who’s running for Senator. As many commentators observed, “Exactly what constitutes ‘legitimate’ rape? How does that differ from any other kind of rape?”

Just one little misbegotten adjective and kaboom! A career goes up in smoke. It can hardly seem fair. But it happens. At the very least, a misplaced word or phrase can both misleading and occasionally hilarious. For example, there’s the classic: “The girl jumped into the swimming pool with the red hair.”

I’ve never seen a swimming pool with red hair. Have you?

Or the sign on the bus in Decatur, Illinois. The letter “L” had fallen off the sign and wasn’t replaced. Riders in that city availed themselves of the “Decatur Pubic Transit System.”

Those of us who write for a living are not impervious to silly mistakes. In fact, the sheer number of words we plop down practically guarantees we’ll create more than our share of guffaws.

One author friend complained about her new editor. “That woman is driving me nuts! She keeps circling what she calls ‘redundancies.’ When I wrote, ‘She clapped her hands,’ that stupid editor said, ‘What else would she clap?’”

Frankly, I think the editor had a point. Unless you’re penning a book about Flipper, the trained porpoise, your protagonist can only clap her hands, so why mention her appendages at all?

On occasion, dear Brutus, the fault actually starts with our fingers. The fourth and pink fingers are notoriously weaker than their counterparts. The position of frequently used letters on the keyboard can confound even the most seasoned writer. Here’s a list of words often misspelled as a result of ergonomic challenges: All I can say is, thank goodness for the self-correcting function. Otherwise, I would be stuck with “t-e-h” rather than “t-h-e.”

Sometimes we commit mental slip ups. I recently inserted the word “intact” while referencing an “intake” form. I also confess to writing “meddle” instead of “mettle,” as in “testing one’s mettle.” (Boy, is my face red as I admit that!)

Since I’m from the South, I also fall victim to “Southernisms,” phrases I’ve misheard or misunderstood since childhood. Thus, “widder woman” is a mispronunciation of the redundancy “widow woman.” And “conniption fit” is another doubly unnecessary phrase, because anyone who has a “conniption” has by definition had a “fit.” Whereas the oft lamented “a hard row to tow” was actually not what it seemed at all! What people intended to say was, “A hard row to hoe.” Who knew?

Beyond all these goofs, there lurks another type of problem: woeful ignorance. No matter how hard you work to perfect your writing, mistakes will happen. Especially when there’s research involved. Let’s face it, you can’t know what you don’t know! That explains why I erred by putting a “mockingbird” in England while writing my new book, Death of a Schoolgirl. You see, I lived in England for a year and I could have sworn on a stack of Bibles that while I was there I had heard the song of a mockingbird. Turns out, I must have been wrong.

After a sharp-eyed reader spotted my mistake, I confessed my error to a friend. She winked at me and said, “Oh, no, Joanna. I’m sure you were right. It must have been one of those rare imported American birds, don’t you think?”

Hmm. I bet it was. In fact, I’m sure of it!


DEATH OF A SCHOOLGIRL  (The Jane Eyre Chronicles)

Jane can’t help but fret when a letter arrives from Adèle Varens—Rochester’s ward, currently at boarding school—warning that the girl’s life is in jeopardy. Although it means leaving her young son and invalid husband, and despite never having been to a city of any size, Jane feels strongly compelled to go to London to ensure Adèle’s safety. But almost from the beginning, Jane’s travels don’t go as planned—she is knocked about and robbed, and no one believes that the plain, unassuming Jane could indeed be the wife of a gentleman; even the school superintendent takes her for an errant new teacher. But most shocking to Jane is the discovery that Adèle’s schoolmate has recently passed away under very suspicious circumstances, yet no one appears overly concerned. Taking advantage of the situation, Jane decides to pose as the missing instructor—and soon uncovers several unsavory secrets, which may very well make her the killer’s next target…

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Joanna Campbell SlanJoanna Campbell Slan is the author of more than twenty books. (Maybe. She’s worse at counting than she is at identifying birds.) Her most recent work—Death of a Schoolgirl—features Jane Eyre as an amateur detective. Visit Joanna at or on Facebook


25 Responses to “Pardon Me, But I Misspoke (Or Miswrote)”

  1. I’m working on revisions now, and my editor has pointed out that my hero’s stubbled jaw is mentioned more times than necessary. Often we need another set of eyes to point out those repetitive phrases.

  2. One of my editors is a stickler for redundancies and expressions she considers overused. I hate going through her comments and revisions, but must admit I’m pleased with the results. Now, if only we could have someone editing us when we speak.

  3. Happens to me often. I type a word how it sounds, even though I know the true spelling. The finges work faster than the brain. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon, so I’m grateful for my editor and for spellcheck. That said, spellcheck sometimes goofs as well.

  4. Another one is “shrugged her shoulders” — because it’s hard to shrug any other body parts. Another overused word is “up”. As for that mockingbird–since they mimic just about any other bird call, maybe you were hearing a mockingbird imitating a starling or a finch–those are all over England!

    • I didn’t realize how many times my heroine flushes in the book I’m working on until my editor pointed it out…and told me you can’t see yourself flush, so the heroine would feel her skin heat instead.

  5. Good post. I’m training myself to re-think definitions I thought I knew and the real meaning of phrases. I look them up frequently so that I’m not embarrassed. We’ve grown up accepting meanings with which other parts of the country may not agree. It’s fun finding others making the mistakes!

    • Jeanne, I also ran a dictionary search on the etymology of the words I used. For example, the word “ruckus” wasn’t in use until the 1860s, too late for my book. I did miss one, the word “scenario”, and wouldn’t you know my sweet aunt discovered it? It’s a fairly new word. I tried as much as possible to keep my vocabulary to words I’d seen in the original Jane Eyre or in Wuthering Heights.

  6. God, I’ve been catching myself doing this so much lately, I’m driving myself nuts! I never used to do it until I read some article (not here) and of course being ADD it stuck in my head and not in the good way, LOL! So I’ve been reading and re-reading my work and taking a day or two off between readings. Seems to work in catching myself! Thanks for the post, nice to know I’m not alone…

  7. Thank you, Joanna, for visiting us today. You’ve made us all more aware to watch our word choices very carefully.

  8. Jacqueline Seewald said

    Self-editing is so important, but having a professional editor pick up all these small errors makes all the difference in a manuscript. There are some wonderful books on self-editing that really help though, since the professional edits don’t usually kick in until after the book is sold.

    • Jacqueline, a lot of pre-published authors console themselves with the thought that their editors will “fix” their work. Yes, they will, but why should they? It’s the job of the author to deliver a manuscript that needs very little revision, especially concerning the most basic elements of grammar, structure, etc.

  9. Hi Joanna ~ Wonderful blog! Really enjoyed it. I’m laughing and moaning since I just spent many hours going over copy edits for the next book in the soup shop series!

  10. bellwriter said

    I’m late getting here, my apologies. But this was a terrific blog and so informative! Thank you, Joanna and Nancy!

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