(#1 Top Twenty)
Essentials/Need to Know
In the Top Twenty list of common errors (Lunsford & Lunsford), wrong word is the first or top occurring mistake identified as most likely to attract a reader’s negative attention.
Not only will the reader be predisposed to judge your writing more harshly, but by using the wrong word, you also risk failing to communicate your ideas or visions effectively.
But what does wrong word mean?
When a reader—whether it’s an editor or instructor, a friend or a member of your critique group—uses the term wrong word, it can mean a number of things.
Sometimes it can mean a simple misspelling, such as using the word their instead of the word there (homonyms).
A type of spelling error that continues to be included under the wrong word category is when a misspelling of a word such as definitely is changed by a spell-checker to defiantly (library.wwu.edu).
Other patterns or errors include
mixing up words that sound somewhat alike (illusion and allusion),
using a word with the wrong shade of meaning (compose instead of comprise),
and using a word with a completely wrong meaning (prevaricate instead of procrastinate)
Nice to know
As an error, wrong word actually moved up from the number 5 position on the original 1986 list, “Twenty Most Common Errors” (Lunsford & Connors). One reason for this change is that spelling was not included in the first list. Despite spell check, spelling errors in the early survey accounted for the most frequent mistakes by some 300%, thus it was left off so as not to skew the results.
While the later study found that spelling errors have significantly declined, they are still
frequent enough to make it to #5 on the Top Twenty list. Thus, misspelling sound-a-like words or homonyms, which were originally included in the wrong word pattern, are now grouped under spelling on the later list.
Dictionaries and thesauruses are available online, making it convenient and easy to check to see if you are using the right word:
“Dictionaries and thesauruses provide writing assistance for writers of all levels of experience and ability. Think of them as tools that will help you to do your very best writing. A dictionary can help you determine the precise denotations of words, while a thesaurus, used responsibly, can help you to capture subtle differences in the connotations of words” (Handbook for Writers, saylor.org).
As an editor of both student and professional papers, I prefer to mark wrong word mistakes as WC or word choice, rather than as WW (wrong word). It seems more positive, and it turns the focus back on the writer to think about his or her word choice, and to ask: is this the word I really want to use, or is this the best word I can use to express my ideas?