Wordsmiths have Achilles’ heels

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Achilles’ heel: A weak or vulnerable factor. From the legend of Greek hero Achilles, who had one vulnerable part of his body, his heel. As an infant, his mother had held him by one heel to dip him in the River Styx to make him invulnerable.

Wordsmith: A word expert who uses language very well

Wordsmith with an Achilles’ heel: Someone who has to check yet again if well or good is the correct word to use in the previous definition

Take a look at what Shenouda employee Donna Muldoon learned from a recent informal and unscientific study of colleagues and their Achilles’ heels.

The rules, they are a changing

In the survey, colleagues noted that once-standard rules have changed, making it necessary to research and confirm they are using the most recent format. For example, some businesses are still unaware that double spaces after a period or full stop are no longer the standard. A change that is more jarring for those who focus on grammar is the more recent revision to the singular subject and plural verb agreement format. It is now common to see variations of “Each owner should have their own copy of the lease.” Through use, and supported by guides such as the APA Style Blog, the new format is becoming acceptable.

A little bit of this, a little bit of that

Even wordsmiths who adeptly manage sentence structure sometimes hesitate when it comes to basic English grammar issues. Writers in the survey gave examples that cause them to rethink what they wrote. Is it that or which? Alternative or alternate? Since or because? On site or on-site or onsite? More than one writer found it necessary to look up when compound adjectives or prefixes take a hyphen. Some writers keep their own customized reference sheet to solve nagging, recurring wordsmithing questions.

While good spelling is common among writers and editors, specific words were an Achilles’ heel nevertheless. Condolences tripped up one writer, license another. An editor who often reviewed documents in both American and British English, would begin to lose focus on which version of fulfill/fulfil, practice/practise, aging/ageing, or program/programme to use. There was also a tendency among writers to watch for repetitive use of certain words, such as so or but. A technical writer who wrote with a controlled language that specified words could only be used in their approved category of noun, verb, or adjective found difficulty writing more creative, less restrictive marketing content.

Well and good

Several writers and editors pointed out that much of the research they do is to comply with a client’s standards and not to overcome a vulnerability. An interesting associated issue can sometimes come into play. Document reviewers can have their own Achilles’ heels and someone may incorrectly change a well to a good. Perhaps this is the time to share with them the recommendations of respected third-party experts and resources.

Accomplished wordsmiths, the colleagues surveyed utilize their strong skills and experience while continuing to keep up with changing standards and new formats. They acknowledge their personal Achilles’ heels and diligently work to craft the perfect turn of phrase. Without exception, these wordsmiths do extremely good work—and they do it very well.

When reading or writing or editing, what is your Achilles’ heel?

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