Everybody knows by now to spellcheck their manuscript before they send it out into the wide wide world. What they don’t always know is that for a certain category of problems, spellcheck is not enough.
I’m talking about homonyms, here – those annoying words that sound the same but are spelled differently (a sane language wouldn’t have these; but English is a long way from a sane language), and that are a prime source of really hard-to-spot typos. Sometimes they show up because the writer’s mind, heading forward at a rapid clip toward some ultimate goal that has little to do with perfect spelling, grabs for the first spelling that matches the sound of the unwritten word and drops it in without bothering to check for context.
Other times, though, it becomes clear to the reader that the writer had no idea that there was another way to spell the word in question – which can be the cause, on the reader’s part, of a fatal loss of confidence in the writer. Every reader will have his or her own hot-button errors that can earn the writer a credibility downcheck; herewith a few of my own:
horde/hoard Mongols come in hordes; treasure comes in hoards. Not the other way around.
its/it’s One – its – is a possessive pronoun; the other – it’s – is a contraction for “it is”. The possessive pronoun doesn’t have an apostrophe, because possessive pronouns in English (my, ours, yours, his, hers, theirs) don’t. The contraction does have an apostrophe, because one of the things an apostrophe does in English punctuation is signify that something has been dropped out of the word.
to/two/too To is a preposition (when it isn’t being part of the infinitive form of a verb.) Two is 2. And too means also – “Can I come, too?” – or excessively – “No. Three people would make everything too crowded.”
pique/peak/peek More people than I’d like to admit get these three confused. Pique as a noun is a fit of annoyance, or a snit; as a verb, it means to stimulate, as in “to pique someone’s interest”. A peak is the pointy part of a mountain, or the metaphorical or literal high point of just about anything. And to peek is to surreptitiously or covertly steal a look at something.
There are others; but these are mine. And there’s no reliable way to catch any of them except by careful reading of the finished manuscript, which is one reason why it’s good to have an outside eye look over your work at that stage – because by that time you’ve read and re-read the text so many times that you aren’t seeing the words on the page so much as you’re seeing the words in your mind.