Riding and writing

My internal copy editor picks strange times to interrupt the rest of my brain.

The other day I was looking at a discussion of why members of a particular discussion group seemed to be abandoning their usual politeness and hurling invective at one another. One person suggested that “the need to not be an arsehole is overwritten by how important and personal the topic is.”

My internal copy editor piped up at that point to say, “No, that should ‘overridden,’ not ‘overwritten.’ ” When we override something, we nullify it. Think of how many times you’ve been stuck in a checkout line while the cashier waits for a manager to override an incorrect entry on the register.

But hold on. We can also overwrite, in the sense of writing on top of something that’s already set down, and thus obliterating the original. That means “overwritten” is an equally fine word here.

So here we have two words that sound almost identical, mean two slightly different things, and both work equally well in getting across the writer’s point.

I’ve been trying to think of other examples, and of the linguistic term that might apply. But my internal copy editor also picks strange times to go silent.


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