Let’s not cry over the occasional howler

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


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”.

The story was much followed up, not because people were worried Obama was soft on terror, but because of the missing S from “response”. “New York Times prints glaring typo on the front page”, crowed the Huffington Post.

The NYT, like most newspapers, is under pressure, which means the odd typo is inevitable. To take it as a sign that nothing in the article is to be trusted is illogical – the typo merely suggests that the brains of the writers and editors were so intent on what they were trying to say, they lost an “s” in the process.

Not only are there typos in the NYT, there are even some in the Bible. A Christian blogger in Canada last year unearthed a missing apostrophe in her edition – “If we are crazy, it’s for God sake”, 2 Corinthians 5:13 - and was so shocked she wrote an entire post about it.

‘Thou shalt commit adultery’

My sense of God is that He’d take this in His stride and would only get steamed up if a typo changed the meaning of His word by, say, omitting a “not” from “thou shalt not commit adultery”. Otherwise, surely, He’d just shrug.

Although the indignation of mortals on typos is overdone, it is usually harmless enough. It gives us a jolt of outrage tinged with superiority every time we spot one, and feeling superior does the morale a power of good.

Yet sometimes it leads to bad decisions. On LinkedIn a recent blog entry from one of its “Influencers” lists the five sorts of people you should never hire. Number two is “The One with the Typo”. The author, the founder and chief executive of HotelTonight, says whenever he gets an application from anyone claiming to want to work for “HotelTonihgt”, he puts it straight in the bin.

I would put it in the bin too – but only if I were trying to hire a proofreader. To exclude someone simply because they have transposed two letters makes even less sense now than it ever did. If human beings have any remaining competitive advantage over the machines that now outdo us at practically everything, it is not our skill at crossing i’s and dotting t’s. It is our ability to write something that provokes a reponse – and not just because it contains a howler or a spelling mistake. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)

lucy.kellaway@ft.com Twitter: @lucykellaway

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