Those way wood sheep

Sometimes I come across a writing error that makes me laugh out loud.

Last week I was reading a magazine article, and encountered this sentence … ‘On January 1, 2009, I shuffled along a country road, keeping an eye out for the usual hazards – farm dogs, way wood sheep.’

I wonder whether those wayward, self-willed, and unpredictable sheep had any idea what was ahead of them as they went the way of the woods?

I hesitate to call this sort of mistake a typo, because there’s an assumption with a typo that the writer/editor is able to locate and fix it. Word-use mistakes happen when writers use a term that they’ve heard in spoken language (and probably used themselves), but haven’t seen written down. They’re caused by not reading widely, and not encountering the nuance of language in written form.

When I was teaching at QUT, I used to collect word-use mistakes on my whiteboard. I wish I still had the collection. The few that I can remember now are ‘eye-con’ (icon) and ‘the smorning’ (this morning). Yes, I really did come across these – and quite often!

This is a plea for wide reading and careful editing … for editors who, while they may not know the difference between ‘way wood’ and ‘wayward’, take enough care to question whether ‘way wood’ can really be correct, and either look it up or ask a friend.

Obviously writers and editors can’t be expected to know all the answers – good writing and editing is a constant process of learning about language. But writers and editors do need to know enough to ask the questions that will help them to find the answers.

Postscript. My 5-year-old son has been downstairs singing about ‘the ostrich of the earth’. I can’t bring myself to tell him that it’s really ‘the arse end of the earth’!  Maybe he doesn’t need to know.