It used to be, if you wanted to be a writer, the prime advice you were given was, "read." You were advised to read books, magazines, newspapers – just keep reading. The purpose of all this reading was to help you recognize words, sentences, paragraphs – not to mention style and rhythm.
It's still good advice although it comes today with a caveat.
It used to be that you would very occasionally see a typographical error in a newspaper story. You would almost never see a typo in a magazine article and if you saw one in a book. . . well, that was a topic of conversation for the dinner table. It was almost unheard of.
Things have changed as most organizations have decided to do without proof-readers and copy editors and as we've moved into the era of the spell-checker. Everyone knows the perils involved in depending on the spell-check. (Don't get me started on the use of "lead" instead of "led." Stop doing that, you people!)
So spell-check doesn't solve the problems around the use of the wrong word – even if it's spelled right – and that's where wide reading comes in: word and phrase recognition to the rescue where "sounding it out" fails.
While you're reading though, watch out for these hazards, all of which I've come across recently – some of them, more than once. Clearly, these are the results of hearing, not reading:
• tow the line. This is so common, I see it several times a week. In case you don't know the problem, the proper expression is toe the line.
• can't bare the pain but, on the other hand, bear your soul.
• by in large. I'm trying to think of something to say about this and nothing is coming to me. Sorry.
• I suppose I could have said – as some people would – I'm in the throws of woe, just reporting this.
• Or I could tell you I've been pouring over catalogues (pouring what? whiskey? wine? lemonade?), to see if, without further adieu, I could buy something to cheer myself up.
Just last week, I came across a mis-use that's R-rated so cover the children's eyes. A blogger whose work I often look at was writing about her favourite love songs. She linked to one song on YouTube and wrote, "I can't listen to this song without balling." Oops. Too much information?
My final strange little error is where my title originates. It's from the website of someone whose work I enjoy and respect. She's a good writer, intelligent, writes bravely about politics, religion, sexuality, parenting – among other subjects.
She and her family have recently moved to a different city and she's been writing about how they're all adapting. Her oldest child has a new playmate, the boy next store. Excuse me? I smiled because I know what it's like to hear a sound in your head and have it come of your finger-tips as right sound, wrong word. The boy next store. Pretty funny.
I was wrong about it being a one-off understandable mistake though. She referred to the new playmate several times – maybe five times – and every time, she referred to him as the "boy next store."
It seems impossible to me that someone who reads widely has never seen the expression, "boy next door." But she's given me a nice conclusion to my reflection on words that must be seen as well as heard.