Do essays make you nervous? You’re not alone.

We’ve written about how autocorrect and contextual spelling programs (like Microsoft Word and others) are actually changing English (in some cases killing off words.) We haven’t mentioned something obvious, but crucial: Technology is turning us into much more careless writers. Do you find errors in emails after you’ve sent them? Do you spot embarrassing mistakes in your essays and memos only after they’re turned in? You are not alone. These errors are all too common in business writing and in students’ papers.

According to psychologist Stanislas Dehaene, our brains read in two different ways: the lexical route and phonological route. The lexical route is the fast and easy road where we read things that are familiar. It helps us read rapidly in part by skipping joining words like of, the, and a.  This reading route is the most common, and it’s handy for helping us read quickly and efficiently. However, it also means that we read carelessly, especially text we have just written that is flowing through our lexical route. The phonological route, on the other hand, is much slower. When we use this route, we sound out each syllable for its meaning. In his experiments, Dehaene flips letters upside down to activate this slower phonological route. When letter orientation is changed, people use the phonological route and are more likely to find their mistakes. However, without changing text formatting or deliberately altering the text, it is very hard to activate that reading route.

See our usage notes below definitions, for words like affect or adjective, for guidance on how to use the trickiest words in English.


  1. COMPUTERLURV -  May 6, 2013 - 11:34 am

    I was taught by my 10th grade English teacher to proofread my own essay by reading it backwards, sentence-by-sentence. In doing so, you uncover many mistakes that you would otherwise overlook. Hope this helps someone as much as it helped me.

  2. someone -  August 29, 2012 - 7:47 pm

    i’m beyond nervous since i’m taking the SAT in 2, 3 yrs. So i’m starting to prepare by taking Kaplan SAT books which are like 650 pages big. Well it does include 12 practice SAT and a tricks of how to master the SAT. They also give details and steps of the question. The book’s really expensive but i got from goodwill for $1 and the quality was i perfect condition.

  3. shradha -  July 14, 2012 - 1:23 am

    I had to deal with these stuffs as long as humanities was there in my course curriculum. Now, I have switched my stream and I am into science. That’s even a bigger s**t.

  4. Chantelle -  May 22, 2012 - 10:36 am

    I think Susan was complimenting some of the people that pointed out the errors in the writing dynamo example. It is funny and ironic that an advertisement trying to sell you a product to improve your writing has grammatical errors in the screen shot.

  5. natalie -  May 21, 2012 - 1:12 pm

    That is not at ALL why essays make me nervous. :P

  6. Lisa -  May 8, 2012 - 1:44 am

    This affliction is not nervousness it is apathy and laziness.

  7. spelling mistakes? -  May 2, 2012 - 3:49 pm

    Be careful with spell checkers though…. this is from http://www.latech.edu/tech/liberal-arts/geography/courses/spellchecker.htm

    A Little Poem Regarding Computer Spell Checkers…

    Eye halve a spelling chequer
    It came with my pea sea
    It plainly marques four my revue
    Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.

    Eye strike a key and type a word
    And weight four it two say
    Weather eye am wrong oar write
    It shows me strait a weigh.

    As soon as a mist ache is maid
    It nose bee fore two long
    And eye can put the error rite
    Its rare lea ever wrong.

    Eye have run this poem threw it
    I am shore your pleased two no
    Its letter perfect awl the weigh
    My chequer tolled me sew.

  8. kay -  May 1, 2012 - 4:08 pm

    I’m in seventh grade, and I wouldn’t make those mistakes. A lot of other kids in my grade would though. Honestly, I don’t watch television. I’m usually on these kinds of websites. Now don’t call me a nerd or geek because I do these things! My best friend does this also. He and I are the smartest kids out of our grade! :) I love him like my brother!!!!

  9. jonathan -  May 1, 2012 - 9:14 am


  10. Jordan -  May 1, 2012 - 6:55 am

    To everyone who makes these articles, I have to say they’re quite interesting and entertaining. They are well writen and very suprising. Keep up the good work!

  11. Wayne Boyce -  April 30, 2012 - 7:28 pm

    Sarah is correct. All one has to do is read the first draft aloud. The real problem is submitting the first draft as a finished product. I usually write an essay at least three times and if I start soon enough – on three different days.

  12. April -  April 29, 2012 - 3:44 pm

    Careless people will always be careless with their writing. But for those who do generally pay attention to their writing, their errors will be few and far in between. A doubled up word here, perhaps a misspelled word there, but for the most part, the writing will be adequate, perhaps even more-so than that which is published in the newspapers and flyers from businesses and such. No amount of spell check is going to keep my sister from saying ‘there’ when she means to say ‘their or they’re’ or ‘meat’ instead of ‘meet’ in a text message or an e-mail. Spell and Grammar check are tools. Some use them correctly and others do not. Personally, I wish someone would give me Microsoft Office. I could definitely use the grammar checker. Sometimes when I go back to read over my writing I notice something that does not make sense, but was likely the result of my brain getting ahead of my fingers.

  13. Mackenzie -  April 29, 2012 - 1:24 pm

    and now i realize that there are so many errors in the example.


  14. Mackenzie -  April 29, 2012 - 1:22 pm

    yay! now i’ll always get 100s on essays! it’ll help me perform better on state tests!!!!!!!!!!!

    @Susan, u dont make sense


  15. Tim -  April 29, 2012 - 3:25 am

    I don’t think this is the sort of program that a writer would gain incite with. The whole part ” grammar and usage” is better with one word, ” grammatical”

  16. PeterG -  April 28, 2012 - 10:47 am

    Isn’t “I’d feel badly” correct? Badly being an adverb describing how I’d feel?

  17. Susan -  April 28, 2012 - 7:09 am

    Thank you, witty people, for brightening my day. (You know who you are.)

  18. Katie -  April 28, 2012 - 5:41 am

    Reading backwards and reading the text aloud both work very well, as does putting the text aside for a day or so. Ideally, a student writing an essay or term paper should use all 3 methods! (Yes, all 3!) Another “app” is not going to address the larger problem, that people are losing the ability to think critically because they so seldom have to think about what they are doing. It is very sad to see that so many of our highschool students and college grads cannot write their way out of a paper bag. It is also very sad that because of the new “technology” for writing, many mothers cannot even recognize their own children’s handwriting, let alone their writing style.

  19. Cyberquill -  April 28, 2012 - 2:54 am

    No, essays do NOT make me nervous, so I AM alone.

  20. Archon -  April 28, 2012 - 1:15 am

    @ Courtney

    The verb in, “if I were,” is Not plural, it’s conditional, indicating possibility.

  21. Iam A Payne -  April 27, 2012 - 3:09 pm

    “it missed a mistake! if you use “if” or “wish” you would make the verb plural. For example, instead of “if i was a teacher” it would be “if i were a teacher.””

    Actually you are referring to the subjunctive tense, in which the verb “to be” appears to be the plural tense, but is actually the only verb whose subjunctive tense is the same as the past plural. For all other verbs, the subjunctive is the infinitive form, like “to run”, “to read” without the “to”. So it would be “If I run”, not “If I ran”. Many people use the past tense in place of the subjunctive nowadays. There are news articles, songs, ads etc. which use the phrase “If I was” instead of “If I were”. But it is generally acceptable in casual speech to do this, since the subjunctive often sounds too pompous in certain circles.

  22. bubba -  April 27, 2012 - 1:34 pm

    According to the ‘thingie’ at the bottom of the page, red is for spelling errors and green is for grammar. Isn’t ‘feel bad’ a gramatical error and ‘high school’ and ‘word processing’ spelling errors? The case of ‘high-school’ and ‘word-processing’ could qualify as either or both errors. I expect that many instances of over-lap and double-dunceing will ensue. Interesting program. Could use a few tweeks.

  23. Ray -  April 27, 2012 - 10:25 am

    “If I was a” –> “If I were a” (subjunctive form!)
    “amount of errors” –> (increasing ominosity?)
    “is astounding. If” –> “is astounding: If” (continuity onto the explanation!)
    “seem to understand” –> (Is there something we’re not perceiving…?)
    “high school students” –> (okay; simple, clear, punctuation; not Defensive)
    “oldest students” –> “oldest student” (avoid weird plurals)
    “know proper usage” –> (indefinite-noun-verb form okay; cf “the fine dining”)
    “often think” –> “oft think/often jive” (when bumpity-bumpity-pop-quizzed?)
    “programs to correct” –> “programs, to correct” (one program per/at a time!)
    “Watching TV all the time, it is” –> (Who, is watching? You imply you-are!?!)
    “having trouble. TV interferes” –> “having trouble: TV interferes” (colon ibid)
    “other factors, too,” –> “other factors too,” (don’t over-explain easy words!)
    “parents like you and me” –> (thank you, No: not on your, schedule…)
    “often doesn’t know grammar” –> “oft doesn’t know grammar” (when asked)

    Dynamo, it is not. More-of-the-same-belief, is what it seems. Children need (and, desire to attain, confidence-in) the practice of good thinking grammar: Children ‘hunger and thirst’ after righteousness– in speech too! Feed them.

  24. Sarah -  April 27, 2012 - 9:55 am

    Just read the text you’ve written out loud to yourself. That’s what we had people do when I worked at my university’s writing center. Reading it out loud forces you to slow down and pay attention to each word choice and punctuation. Very simple and effective…

  25. Jetty -  April 27, 2012 - 9:53 am

    I’m glad I can activate my phonological route whenever I need it.

  26. Bob -  April 27, 2012 - 9:48 am

    MS Word’s grammar check is damn near useless and the dictionary is no substitute for having a real one at hand.

  27. Ann lee -  April 27, 2012 - 9:35 am

    “we are literally unable to proofread work that we’ve just written to find mistakes” Oh please, don’t you think that might be a little bit of an exaggeration? It’s also funny how the article starts with telling us how horrible spellcheck is, then it promotes what? Dictionary.com’s own version of…spellcheck! Actually, it’s spellcheck on steroids. I love it!

  28. Sandy -  April 27, 2012 - 9:33 am

    I usually wait a bit an hour perhaps or just change the font of the text and go back to read it.

  29. Tom R. -  April 27, 2012 - 9:25 am

    Won’t software like this just make writers even lazier than spell check already has? Writers today do not adequately proof their work because they assume spell check will take care of it for them. Software that checks grammar and usage will simply make it easier for them to abandon any effort to write well. The result will be a populace that can’t write proper English without a computer and can’t speak it to save their lives.

  30. Are -  April 27, 2012 - 9:10 am

    As someone noted, “IF I WERE A TEACHER”!!! Anywhere else you could get away with that, but dictionary.com?

  31. Manny -  April 27, 2012 - 9:02 am

    It’s finally here: the spell checker!

  32. Catherine -  April 27, 2012 - 8:49 am

    The first sentence should replace the word “amount” with “number.”

  33. EarlOfWarwick -  April 27, 2012 - 8:47 am

    “If I was” isn’t marked for style and you want to add a comma after the word “studying.” Correct me if I be wrong, but isn’t a comma before the word “and” incorrect (at least in British English)?

  34. bholland -  April 27, 2012 - 8:39 am

    Is the person’s name Dehaena or Dehaene? It’s spelled both ways in the article.

  35. Lace -  April 27, 2012 - 8:23 am

    This is true in my case. I absolutely CANNOT ever proofread my own writing. Ever. I can find typos in books, school letters my brother brings home, even stuff other people are typing up at the same time I’m reading it. Anything apart from my writing. My English, History, French and Geography teachers always tell me halfway through and ten minutes before the end of a lesson to check my work for spelling mistakes, grammar mistake and capital letters for names and after full stops, yes, some year 7s are that thick these days. I know, I’m in their classes. But, I don’t make grammar mistakes, I’m not in year 1, and my spelling is one of the best in the year. I just carry on writing. I faced it long ago (well, a couple of years back, but time goes slow when you’re bored out of you’re mind daily) that I can’t proofread my own writing within a week-and-a-bit. Sometimes even longer.

  36. Andrew -  April 27, 2012 - 8:09 am

    Dehaena-it’s the scientist’s name!

  37. d.b. -  April 27, 2012 - 8:03 am

    One of my high school English teachers suggested to read your paper backwards after it’s finished, word by word, to catch more spelling and grammar mistakes. It forces the brain to focus on each word and how it’s used without skipping anything just because it’s familiar. I’m not going to claim it’s foolproof, but it sure has helped me over the years.

  38. student -  April 27, 2012 - 7:48 am

    If writing in MS Word, turn on grammar check; set it for the level of standard desired.

  39. JAMc -  April 27, 2012 - 7:37 am

    oh, well

  40. m0g -  April 27, 2012 - 7:36 am

    I learned a method for proofreading in grade-school that always helped me catch mistakes that were otherwise overlooked… Try reading you passages backwards sentence-by-sentence and see if this method helps you perfect your essay.

  41. JAMc -  April 27, 2012 - 7:35 am

    First, “amount” should be “number” (amount is for volume, number is for quantity); I do not believe that “they’re” is an accepted contraction, but beyond that, a well-written essay does not include contractions.

  42. WRITINGDYNAMO | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  April 27, 2012 - 7:30 am

    [...] ‘Writing Dynamo Wants’ — “OUR NEW PRODUCT” is all we had to see. — It must be great, — consolidate a brand new way of thinking. — We’re in a lurch for more research — but where could anyone go wrong. — A teaching tool for any old fool — where we could spend much more time just drinking. — Technology is a wonderful thing: — Come on now, keep it coming. — “There’s a market for Everything” — We need  more writing and Humming — To witness more hearts that are bleeding. — A picture is worth a thousand words. — Sell us all an Etch-a-Sketch and strings for strumming: Why do we need reading? –>>L.T.Rhyme [...]

  43. student -  April 27, 2012 - 7:30 am

    If writing in MS Word, turn on grammar check; set it for the standard of writing desired.

  44. Louis Profeta -  April 27, 2012 - 7:26 am

    In my quest to produce poems, I’ve read many poets and notice they leave out words in their lines. It was a style actually that I could not follow for new poems I wrote. At times reading messages online was shocking, so much was left out it became illegible, lines were chopped.It was like they never learned to speak or were bored, unconcerned or lazy. Proof reading was definitley a thing of the past ages replaced by the speed writing trickery. And it’s presented for a quick response as the electronic mailing is changing English language to the idiom.

  45. JAMc -  April 27, 2012 - 7:24 am

    …the number of errors, not amount (amount is for volume, number is for quantity); I do not believe that “they’re” is an accepted contraction, but besides that, a well-written essay does not not include contractions.

  46. Yisel -  April 27, 2012 - 6:54 am

    Allen, Dahaena is a person, as in “According to psychologist Stanislas Dehaene”, like it reads at the beginning of the paragraph.

  47. E -  April 27, 2012 - 6:35 am

    Waitaminute – is this a blog, or an ad?

  48. Ole TBoy -  April 27, 2012 - 6:14 am

    It ought to be “the number of grammar usage errors” instead of “the amount of grammar usage errors” should it not? One can have an amount of sand, but must have a number of people. Ergo, a number of errors.

  49. dani -  April 27, 2012 - 5:32 am

    It is so annoying to find a book with editing errors. These ppl are paid well enough that I feel they should catch them. It kinda upsets the credibility of the author in my eyes. Now that I have a kindle I highlight the areas that need correcting and correct them. Makes me feel better. Just a side not I am not going to grammatically correct speech here cuz this is informal and I do not care.

  50. Eric -  April 27, 2012 - 4:10 am

    You should state that this is an advertisement (for a product that is for sale).

  51. eriapu -  April 27, 2012 - 4:07 am

    This is to Helen Keller,

    Stephen King used the correct word. Here is the definition of the verbs CAREER and careen, respectively:

    — vb
    5. ( intr ) to move swiftly along; rush in an uncontrolled way
    verb (used without object)
    to run or move rapidly along; go at full speed.


    verb (used without object)
    (of a vehicle) to lean, sway, or tip to one side while in motion: The car careened around the corner.
    (of a ship) to heel over or list.
    career ( def. 7 ): verb (used without object)

    Does that clear it up for you?

  52. Michelle -  April 27, 2012 - 3:47 am

    I would say it’s not needed, at least for me, but then I remember all the essays in high school that I had to revise or proofread. For many people this will actually be a good resource.

    For me, I just revise and proofread as I go. I take a while to write a paper, but I don’t have nearly as many errors when I go back over it.

  53. Emmanuel o'neil -  April 27, 2012 - 3:22 am

    yea nishta, it’s really a nice app, it can be useful just that it did not actually bear on the direction as it was intended

  54. Mike -  April 27, 2012 - 3:10 am

    @ George Adams: That is so funny — if that isn’t an example of how digital media are killing language and with it, civilization as we know it, I don’t know what is. Not only that but the offending word comes after the first sentence about the astounding number of “usage” errors — Irony herself must’ve had an orgasm. (Also, in the second sentence, it’s, If I WERE a teacher, not If I WAS a teacher… . (By the way, have you noticed how many Hotword blog articles are about the killing of or seeming demise of the English language? Hmm.)

    So, Dictionary.com, maybe you don’t know, but there is a whole group of professionals whose job it is to make sure “usage” errors — as well as a whole bunch of other copy errors — are fixed before your content is presented to your “50 million” visitors. They’re called COPY EDITORS and PROOFREADERS! Maybe you should hire a few — it might help your credibility and integrity as a, ah, DICTIONARY and REFERENCE site!

  55. Cornelius Lambshank -  April 27, 2012 - 12:37 am

    So in order to combat linguistic laziness brought about by an over reliance on technology, you propose a slap-dash version of an existing and highly used computer program? Imagine my surprise to learn that one must eventually pay for this saviour of soft wares and its messianic machinations.

    (proof read with Microsoft word)

  56. mouse -  April 27, 2012 - 12:00 am

    This is GREAT

  57. president of G.F.R -  April 26, 2012 - 11:49 pm

    hi this not cool and i think dictionary.com is good but needs some work or else it G.F.R will get rid of it

  58. Kathy -  April 26, 2012 - 10:17 pm

    A good proofreading technique(I learned this from my third grade teacher) is to read what you’ve written backwards! This way, you trigger your brain into reading through the phonological route. This is because when you read backwards, what you’re reading doesn’t make sense. You read word for word instead of in phrases.

    What I mean by “reading backwards” I DON’T mean read the word “flower” like “rewolf”. Say, “I wnet to the flewor sohp”
    read it from right to left instead. “sohp flewor the to wnet I”
    (I misspelled on purpose. Notice that you can tell that the words are misspelled more easily when the sentence was read backwards)

    Unfortunately, this is mainly for catching spelling mistakes. Reading your writing backwards essentially takes away the meaning of a sentence as a whole, so, you can’t tell if the grammar in a sentence is wrong either.

    Hope this helps!

  59. Nishtha -  April 26, 2012 - 9:43 pm


  60. Allen -  April 26, 2012 - 9:31 pm

    Dehaena – A word used in this article that IS NOT found on dictionary.com!

  61. Helen Keller -  April 26, 2012 - 9:03 pm

    See, that’s what you get for proofreading your own work while you are writing it. I guess this article is on to something.

  62. Helen Keller -  April 26, 2012 - 9:01 pm

    I need to amend my comment. I meant to give the example “the skier was careering (instead of careening) down the mountainside off of every tree in sight,” as, I suppose, if the skier was simply skiing straight down, instead of going side to side, bouncing off of trees, he would be careering.

  63. Helen Keller -  April 26, 2012 - 8:50 pm

    I am both amazed and horrified each time I read a new book and find typographical errors. Among the most annoying of these errors is the printed word “careering” in place of “careening”, as in “the skiier was careering down the mountainside.” I have found this in several works by Stephen King, Dean Koontz and others. Apparently the use of human proofreaders has been replaced by that of a flawed spell check program. At each discovery, I shout out “I want that job. Please let me be your proofreader. I would do so much better than your machine!”

  64. Deathgleaner -  April 26, 2012 - 8:49 pm

    dang, so many errors in this document…

  65. Courtney -  April 26, 2012 - 8:31 pm

    it missed a mistake! if you use “if” or “wish” you would make the verb plural. For example, instead of “if i was a teacher” it would be “if i were a teacher.”

  66. Jeanna -  April 26, 2012 - 8:24 pm

    I often find my mistakes as I type; at least, I usually find my grammar and spelling mistakes. I noticed one of the sample corrections is labeled “style,” though I would have thought that to be considered grammar. Incorrect verb- or rather incorrect subject-verb agreement.

  67. Daniel Gomez -  April 26, 2012 - 7:41 pm

    Hey George, I noticed that as well!
    Anyone else heard of Muphry’s law?
    (No, I did not mean to type Murphy’s law)
    I love when things like this happen. Irony makes me smile.

  68. the fox with crackers -  April 26, 2012 - 7:23 pm

    haha this is so convenient
    only i dont use the computer to type a lot

  69. the fox -  April 26, 2012 - 7:21 pm

    whoa sooo cool

  70. foxy -  April 26, 2012 - 7:07 pm


  71. Daryl Devore -  April 26, 2012 - 6:41 pm

    I am so sharing this with every writer in my critique group., We’ve always know this but didn’t know why. Why just called it “another set of eyes”.

    Thanks for this.

  72. Archon -  April 26, 2012 - 6:34 pm

    If I WERE a teacher…

  73. PAULA -  April 26, 2012 - 6:32 pm

    Can I use it? How do I get it?

  74. lightknight10 -  April 26, 2012 - 5:54 pm

    I find it funny, because this article is about incorrect spelling, and instead of writing rapidly, he spells it rapdly. :P Don’t want to pick on you, it was just the irony of it that made me chuckle.

  75. Bob -  April 26, 2012 - 5:44 pm

    kind of like spellcheck on word, right?

  76. George Adams -  April 26, 2012 - 5:13 pm

    The example didn’t catch “principals” incorrectly used for “principles”.


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