Usage in Context: Supplementing Word

The five letters of the word “KUDOS” tacked onto a blue background on five sticky notes of various colors.

We hate to do this, but the next paragraph is going to contain errors. Microsoft Word won’t catch any of them. How many can you count?

If you’re like us, you’d feel badly about missing even one. Editors are not usually known for flaunting the rules, and any suggestion that we’d be unphased to discover that even a miniscule error had leeched into the published version of a document—despite hours of effort pouring over every word to make it “perfect”—strains credulity.

Which is why we’ll take all the help we can get.

Read on to find out more (and to learn about some of the errors in this post so far). But beware, you might find some additional mistakes lurking ahead!

Adding PerfectIt to Word

MS Word has always been good at flagging spelling errors, and it’s better than it used to be at finding context-dependent usage errors. But so far nothing in this post would cause it to add any of its telltale squiggly, doubled, or dotted underscores.

Meanwhile, how many errors did you count? If you found all seven, then kudos are due to you. If one or two slipped by, don’t worry: The Chicago Manual of Style for PerfectIt can help.

As readers of Shop Talk may know, CMOS has teamed up with PerfectIt proofreading software to give editors an assist when it comes to enforcing Chicago style. In case you missed it, you’ll find our introductory essay here. Follow-up posts can be found under the category “CMOS for PerfectIt.”

Briefly, The Chicago Manual of Style for PerfectIt supplements PerfectIt’s consistency checks with checks derived from the recommendations in the Manual. These checks look not only for Chicago-style hyphenation, capitalization, spelling, abbreviations, italics, and numbers (and more) but also for some of the usage problems discussed in chapter 5.

To demonstrate, we ran Chicago Style for PerfectIt on the text of this post to see what it would find.

First—and though we were a bit loathe to do it—did you catch that extra error we planted in the text above? PerfectIt did:

Screenshot from PerfectIt: “Kudos is singular. If the result is awkward, consider rephrasing.” Includes an option to change “kudos are due” to the preferred “kudos is due.”

Clicking “Fix” will change the text from the nonstandard but common “kudos are due” to the strictly correct “kudos is due.”

PerfectIt also stopped at “feel badly about,” “flaunting the rules,” “unphased,” “miniscule,” “leeched into,” “pouring over every word,” and “strains credulity” in that error-filled paragraph near the top of this post. And it stopped at “loathe to do” in the paragraph above the last screenshot, proof that you shouldn’t give CMOS editors free reign to make up errors:

Screenshot from PerfectIt: “Don’t confuse loath (an adjective meaning reluctant) with loathe (a verb meaning to detest).” Includes an option to change “loathe to do” (with an “e”) to the preferred “loath to do” (no “e”).

Clicking “Fix” will correct the problem, and clicking “See more from CMOS 5.250” will bring up the applicable entry from the 52-page “Glossary of Problematic Words and Phrases”:

Screenshot from PerfectIt showing an excerpt from paragraph 5.250 in CMOS explaining that “loathe” with an “e” is a verb and “loath” without and “e” is an adjective.

This tells us that “loath” is correct (and that the preferred pronunciation sounds like “both”). But be careful, because PerfectIt looks for “loathe” only in certain contexts where it is likely to be wrong: “loathe to do,” “am loathe,” “are loathe,” “is loathe,” “was loathe,” and “were loathe.” If you’re worried that you might have misused “loathe” elsewhere, you will need to use Word to search for it in a separate pass.

And yes, PerfectIt also noticed our “free reign” error (as did we, having typed it ourselves), but it checks for “reign” (and “rein”) in only a few contexts where it is almost certain to be wrong, like “free reign” and “reining supreme”—common errors that mix up monarchs and horses.

Fix or Ignore?

First, we promise that there are no more intentional errors in this post. They hurt us more than they hurt you. Instead, we’ll turn our attention to fixing them.

For the record, that first paragraph should have read as follows:

If you’re like us, you’d feel bad about missing even one. Editors are not usually known for flouting the rules, and any suggestion that we’d be unfazed to discover that even a minuscule error had leached into the published version of a document—despite hours of effort poring over every word to make it “perfect”—strains credibility.

For starters, one feels bad, not badly, about something—just as one might feel good or cold or happy or sad. An adjective and not an adverb is needed after the linking verb. And one flouts the rules, not flaunts them, though one might flaunt a knowledge of the rules.

Those errors and each of the others are as easy to correct as they are to make:

Screenshot from PerfectIt: “In this phrase, use flouting (disobeying) rather than flaunting (showing off).” Includes an option to change “flaunting the rules” to the preferred “flouting the rules.”

The other mistakes—“unphased” for “unfazed,” “miniscule” for “minuscule,” “leeched” for “leached,” “pouring” for “poring,” and “credulity” for “credibility”—are equally straightforward.

But sometimes you’ll want to leave the existing text as is. For example, a direct quotation that includes “feels badly” or “miniscule” or “kudos are” would be okay, assuming the quotation reflects the source. These “errors” are so common—and understandable (“feel” isn’t an obvious linking verb, “mini” means “small,” and “kudos” looks like a plural)—that readers are unlikely to mistake them for typos.

So when PerfectIt does flag a word or phrase, make sure it’s not in a quotation. If it is, check the original (or add a query for the author to check it) and click “Fix” (to change) or “Next” (to ignore) accordingly. (See CMOS 13.7–8 for some permissible changes to quotations.)

In some cases, PerfectIt leaves the correction up to you rather than including a specific fix. For example, if you were asked to commit to attending a biennial conference for editors, would you know what that means? PerfectIt will ask you to consider clarifying:

Screenshot from PerfectIt: “Readers may be confused by biennial. Consider rewriting to specify every other year or once every two years instead.” Includes a suggestion to type any changes directly into MS Word.

In this case, PerfectIt asks you to type your changes (if any) directly into Word. Whether you want to clarify that “biennial” means every other year (or once every two years) is up to you and will depend on context, target audience, and other factors.

Modifying PerfectIt

Usage is tricky. Not only are many points of usage a matter of opinion, but sometimes seemingly incorrect usage is intentional (as in fictional dialogue representing informal speech). And sometimes you’ll want PerfectIt to check for something that isn’t currently included.

For example, you might work for a client who is strict about the idea that we click icons rather than clicking on them. Windows users can add “click on” (and variations with clicks, clicked, and clicking) to PerfectIt’s Preferred Spelling list (suggesting “click” or its applicable variation as a replacement) or to Phrases to Avoid/Consider (a good place to add terms that are likely to require rewriting rather than simply replacing).

To take another example, we didn’t think to add “kudo” to Chicago Style for PerfectIt (as a potential error for “kudos”—except in the context of martial arts). But just because it didn’t make our list doesn’t mean it can’t be added to yours. Any such modification can be saved in a new style sheet based on Chicago but edited to reflect your preferences. Some PerfectIt users create a house style sheet in this way. Others create style sheets for specific clients or projects.

Learn More

Word’s context-sensitive grammar and usage checks have gotten better in recent years. The Chicago Manual of Style for PerfectIt isn’t a substitute for those, but it can supplement them with additional terms that even the most knowledgeable language professionals might otherwise miss. And it can help teach Chicago style by bringing CMOS into Word.

To learn more about Chicago Style for PerfectIt or to apply it on your next document, click for details.

KUDOS art by EdwardSamuel / Adobe Stock.

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2 thoughts on “Usage in Context: Supplementing Word

    • Merriam-Webster’s entry proves that these usage problems aren’t always so straightforward. Some might object to “kudo” as a singular back-formation from a singular Greek word wrongly assumed to be plural, but that backstory would be ancient history to many of us. Thank you for your comment.

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