Let’s not cry over the occasional howler

Opinion: human’s ability to write comes with ability to err

Mon, Aug 25, 2014, 10:57

In a recent column about Sheryl Sandberg, I spelt her first name with a C. I have no idea why I did this, but whatever the reason, having written “Cheryl Sandberg”, I didn’t spot it. I read the piece over a few times before submitting, as I always do, saw nothing amiss, and pressed send. Fortunately, an editor picked it up, changed it and administered a light rap over the knuckles.

As well as shame, I felt bafflement. I have spent 30 years in journalism, and there I was misspelling a name I had spelt correctly dozens of times before. Had the mistake not been spotted, the newspaper would have looked ridiculous and I would have seemed sloppy, dim and outrageously unprofessional. Any value in the column would have been obliterated – and then some.

Though that was a particularly bad one, I’ve always had a flair for typos. It is not getting better with experience – nor with spellcheck. My ability to introduce mistakes has kept well ahead of the efforts of Microsoft and Apple to eliminate them. I may no longer submit stories peppered with the word h-t-e (my computer is so insistent that I don’t want to write the letters in that order that I have had to trick it by adding hyphens) but instead I insert the wrong word, leave words out or write “here” for “hear”.

Because I know I have a problem, I try to help myself. I print my articles out and read them on paper. I change the font for the final readthrough to the hideous Comic Sans as the gawky shape of the letters sometimes exposes a mistake that had been hiding. But even then, lots get through – nearly all of which are caught at the 11th hour by vigilant subeditors.

Working on autopilot

Given my poor record, I was cheered to read an article in Wired a week ago saying we make typos not because we are dim, but because we are clever. Writing is a sophisticated job and our brains focus on the structure, the sentences and the phrases, leaving the close-up work to be done on autopilot. Afterwards we are programmed to read only what we think we have written, not what we actually have. Typos don’t necessarily mean we are sloppy, more that we are congenitally ill-equipped to do our own proofreading.

If that is the case, it is odd that we make such a phenomenal fuss about them. Earlier this summer the New York Times carried a front-page story about a speech Barack Obama had given on US foreign policy with a headline referring to his “Cautious Reponse to World Crisis”.

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