Disclaimer: This article shows my own personal experiences with what I’ve dubbed as “grammar dyslexia” and what has helped me. While I hope my experiences help others, I in no way have the credentials to give any medical or mental health advice. If you need any help with any form of dyslexia, please contact a professional.
Today, someone on the official Elvis Costello page asked: “Where exactly did peace, love, and understanding go?” I sarcastically wrote, “It got eaten by a bear.” For those without a total recall of every Elvis Costello reference, this refers to 2008’s A Colbert Christmas. During this TV special, Stephen Colbert, Willie Nelson, Feist, and a bear who ate Elvis Costello, sang “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, & Understanding.” The comment put me in a tizzy. The word bear has a homophone (bare). This triggered what I like to call “grammar dyslexia” where I literally cannot remember which homonym or homophone to use.
As a writer, grammar dyslexia can be a difficult obstacle to overcome. If I use the wrong word, my authority could be refuted by the reader. This, makes me work extra hard to fight grammar dyslexia. How you may ask? Let me tell you.
Is Grammar dyslexia really dyslexia?
Grammar dyslexia is my own term for a condition I’ve noticed. Is grammar a real form of dyslexia? Most likely not. While grammar dyslexia can be a sign of actual dyslexia, I essentially use the term “dyslexia” in this case for lack of a better word.
There their they’re, to too two
The confusing of to/too/two and they’re/there/their are the granddaddies of bad grammar! Spend any amount of time on the internet, and you will find the horrific confusing of these words. These confusions are the biggest grammar pet peeve to – well….a lot of people.
I used to be really bad on this matter. I certainly knew (and still know) the difference between to/too/two, but sometimes my grammar dyslexia got in the way. Granted, I’d never type two or they’re unintentionally, but to/there when I meant too/their or vice versa was a hallmark of my writing. I looked at an old college paper from a 300 level college class, and it was riddled with these very confusions! Somehow, I got an A on the paper, when I really should have gotten a B at best.
Another example happened a few years after college. I was dating a woman and my emails to her had so many of these mild dyslexia moments in our correspondences, she made me take an online quiz on the meaning of their/there/they’re (I aced that sucker, thank you very much).
Again, I have curtailed this specific instance of grammar dyslexia (thankfully). Still, it was a huge issue for me at one time. It took me a lot of self-discipline. I slowed my typing speed down (I can type really fast), and I also reread every word I type in a public forum.
Which letter goes where?
We all know the rule…I before E, except after C or when sounded as A, as in neighbor and weigh. And weird is just weird. Words like their are weird…and it freaks me out every time. Because of this rule, I always want to type “thier,” not “their.” English is full of what I like to call landmine words. Words that, save for general memorization, make no logical sense. Considering English is a hodgepodge of Germanic, French, Latin, Greek, and et cetera….it’s a wonder we don’t have more of these words. We have words that have silent letters. We have words that have randomly repeated letters. There are even have words like colonel wich make absolutely no sense within the constructs of English. It’s enough to make my mildly dyslexic brain asplode! Thank God for spell check, am I right?
How do I get past this? Well…like I said, general memorization and spell-check. More importantly, a healthy reading diet can also help. If you read enough, be it the great classic works of fiction, or just some stupid article on the internet, you can train your brain to recognize when a word looks wrong. When you type a landmine word, and spell check does not catch it (maybe because it’s a homonym), your brain can still catch the word. Thus, from there you can just Google the word and you will almost always find the correct spelling.
For better or worst, I look at similar words
I mentioned in the previous section that memorization is the key, but sometimes I need a little help in memorizing certain words. Yes….that headline should read “for better or worse“….not worst. I know that because I know the opposite of worst is best and the opposite of worse is better. That’s how I finally figured out the difference between the two words…I looked at a similar word and the situations that word is used. In this case, it was their antonyms. Use “worse” if the antonym is “better” and “worst” if the antonym is “best.” It also helps to remember that worst and best pair their ending “st” sound.
Likewise, I had a problem with “its” and “it’s.” This problem was so bad, I tried to avoid using the words altogether, as I just couldn’t remember which homophone to use. Then one day I realized “its” is a pronoun. Do other pronouns have an apostrophe? No…they don’t.
We do not write “hi’s,” and the only time we write “her’s” is when talking about an English indie rock band. So, when using the neutral pronoun its, we do not use an apostrophe. Apostrophes, in this case, are only reserved for the contraction it’s (short for it is).
Editing helps grammar dyslexia
One of my favorite professors, and probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, taught me something life-saving! Ok, maybe not life-saving, but certainly invaluable to my writing career. She insisted her students ALWAYS do two drafts (at least) of every paper. No joke, she expected two different versions of our papers. This forced advice put me in a habit of making multiple drafts of every paper I wrote all throughout my undergraduate years.
There were very few papers in college that I didn’t do two drafts, and those papers usually sucked (like the one I mentioned earlier, the one I should not have gotten an A). Even now, I try to make sure to write a draft of every article I write. I then come back and edit at least 24 hours later. This curtails so many mistakes. I catch so many stupid errors caused by grammar dyslexia., I could probably write an entire article on the two draft system, and how it helped me over the years.
I also have a secondary editing technique: I have someone else do a quick read-through of almost every word I publish. My partner in life (and in writing) will read these words before anyone else, making sure I don’t embarrass myself with stupid grammar dyslexia mistakes.
Experience helps grammar dyslexia
I took a 400 level class called Practical Grammar, taught by the State of Oregon’s foremost grammar expert. On the first day of class, said professor/grammar expert asked us what made us take her class. I don’t remember everything I wrote, but I did write “I have good grammar already.” Yeah….20 years later, and I still blush every single time I think about that damned mistake. I knew the proper spelling of grammar, but grammar dyslexia activated on that specific assignment. Once more…she mentioned my mistake in class (anonymously, thankfully). Guess what? I NEVER made that mistake. Again, I knew that grammar should never be spelled with an “e,” but that experience wrote the spelling into my subconscious.
Still, that’s one example of a special experience. A more general experience that has curtailed and help my grammar dyslexia: writing is a priority in my life. I write several times a week, I edit several more times a week. This has become my life, and because this is my life, I find myself struggling less and less. Look at this article, and then look at an article from say….ten years ago. Just browsing my “top 25 albums of the 00s” article shows how I used to type when writing was not a priority. Further proof, my partner has stated I really don’t make that many mistakes anymore – especially compared to when she first started proofreading my articles.
My experience has helped curtail grammar dyslexia so much, I even feel comfortable publishing without editing! Well…only if I absolutely have to in order to meet a deadline.
When all else fails, research, research research!
If my grammar dyslexia gets too much of me, I Google things like a madman. When I was trying to remember “bear” verses “bare,” I Googled the difference. I found I had the right spelling…and I was relieved. This, in turn, gave me an experience…and hopefully, my subconscious will remember this experience.
In the its vs it’s section, I was trying to think if “hers” was ever spelled with an apostrophe. I Googled and found nothing but the aforementioned rock band (decent band by the way, you should listen). I also found this lesson from Lawless English, which says “hers” NEVER has an apostrophe. So…why wouldn’t we put an apostrophe on “hers?” After all, apostrophe s and possession go hand in hand. That dog’s bone. Aaron’s phone number. Donald Trump’s covfefe. Because hers is NOT a possessive – the possessive pronoun is “her.” Again, that’s one of those weird English things…where the rules kind of don’t matter in this one case. Again, English is weird.
If you struggle with grammar dyslexia, Google is your best friend, as are other research tools like Grammarly and even an old school dictionary. I also recommend finding and absorbing media (periodicals, podcasts, YouTube videos, and the like) that talk about grammar. Grammar Girl is a favorite podcast of mine.
It is 2020. The internet is at our fingertips. We no longer can make excuses for not knowing a subject if it is truly important to us.
Learning the source of Grammar Dyslexia
I suspect my grammar dyslexia stems from a few sources. Firstly, as I mentioned, I write really fast. I mean…really fast. My fingers pour out the words faster than my brain can process them. So again, training my subconscious is key in my winning battle against grammar dyslexia. Actually, it goes beyond subconscious memory, it becomes a matter of muscle memory with the so-called “landmine” words. If you type “colonel” enough, your hands will do all the heavy lifting and you can just focus on getting your brilliant message to the masses.
Another possible contributing factor to my case of grammar dyslexia might be a little controversial. I learned to spell with the help of phonics. While there’s certainly debate about the pros and cons of phonics, English is not a purely phonetic language, so other methods must be coupled with phonics such as the whole language approach. In the early 80s when I learned reading skills, they somehow missed that concept.
The biggest (suspected) contributor to my grammar dyslexia, however, is a slight (very slight) form of possible dyslexia. Mind you, this is a self-diagnosis based on my own research and my own confirmation bias. Having said that, looking at the symptoms of stealth dyslexia, I fit the description. Again though… self-diagnosis, confirmation bias. Take it with a grain of salt.
Ultimately, what gets me past this is a special superpower I have. I don’t let my shortcomings ruin my life. I find ways to work past my shortcomings, be it my deformed and painful feet, or possible stealth dyslexia. Sidenote, this is a very common thing in stealth dyslexia….and that’s why it remains “stealthy.” I will state that not everyone has my same ability to work past their own shortcomings mind you. I call it a “superpower” for a reason….meaning it isn’t something that’s normal.
If you suffer from grammar dyslexia, you may or may not have similar root causes. Regardless, it is really important to find your own root causes. Identifying my own root causes, and implementing possible solutions have helped me immensely in fighting my grammar dyslexia. I hope it helps you as well.