There’s a typo in my column? Implossible

Priceless prose: would you have spotted the error on the coin? Photograph: Central Bank of Ireland

Priceless prose: would you have spotted the error on the coin? Photograph: Central Bank of Ireland


I begin by extending a heartfelt note of empathy to the person responsible for making an error on the limited-edition James Joyce €10 coin. This was the erroneous Ulysses line: “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things that I am here to read.”

I’d make a pretty hefty bet that most readers wouldn’t ordinarily be able to identify the mistake, or be sure if the mistake is in there at all. Likely, the line could have been written backwards and most working journalists wouldn’t have known about it unless it was pointed out to them.

But still, it was an error. Someone’s bad day. Everyone’s funny little news item. Such is the natural order of things.

In the realm of coin-related typos, this wasn’t a biggie. The standard was set two years ago by the misspelling of Chile as Chiie on a coin – a typo that remains on the currency, outlasting the managing director of the Chilean mint, who lost his job as a result.

But I know the pain of error, the dagger stab of the typo, the death grip of the howler. In common with many colleagues, I am too familiar with the particular phenomenon of breezing through the day, confident in a job well done, only to wake with a start at 3am, a clammy tide of sweat creeping across my brow, fear drilling through my dreams. Did I get that right? Did I double-check that fact? Did I let that line sneak through? I hope the editor nipped it at the last minute.

Maybe I was saved by a terrible accident at the printing press that meant, at a cost of tens of thousands of euro, the entire print run of the newspaper had to be shredded. Yes, with luck that happened.

One of the rules of the subconscious is that if you wake up in the middle of the night trying to convince yourself that something didn’t happen, then it most likely did.

It is commonly believed in this industry that newspapers were once pristine gardens of words, unsullied by errors or typos. It is in keeping with the general notion that the standards of journalism and reporting are lower than they were 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

There have, no doubt, been changes in reporting methods, shifts in priorities, increases in pressures, but the expansion of the size of daily newspapers alone has an impact.

The Irish Times produces the equivalent of a novel a day. In the 1980s it was more like a novella. Before that a weighty short story. Go back to the early 20th century and the paper was hardly much bigger than an advertising pull-out.The acreage of the modern newspaper means, inevitably, more typos for the reader to tsk and tut over.

But those who believe that typos are born of modern ignorance and carelessness need only examine the digital archives. Mistakes were made regularly in days of yore and, like the James Joyce coin, they were pressed from hot metal and made available for future generations to read, and pause, and ponder. “Surely he meant affect there when he said effect .”

Until recently, a typo would sit on a page, burning a hole through the day like a hot rock on ice, gradually yellowing with the newsprint and the arrival of a new print run, a new paper.

The web, on the other hand, is a masking agent. Within seconds, an error can be amended, a typo corrected, facts changed, lines inserted or removed, headlines rewritten, or troublesome pieces pounced upon and disappeared entirely. There is a great temptation to cover it up without explanation; to just whistle innocently. Go about your business, ma’am. You were probably just seeing things.

The confidence and self-awareness of many media organisations can be measured in the depth of their corrections column. In some cases, notably that of Slate. com, it is marked out by hyperlinked asterisks that dot through its pieces online, snow flurries of contrition, each bringing the reader to a footnote that explains the error that originally appeared there.

But, for most online articles, there is nothing to signal that anything was ever wrong. Unless someone screengrabs and tweets the evidence, then we never make mistakes.

Before we conclude, I should add that I am fully aware of the universal law governing articles about typos, which states: “All articles about typos will themselves contain at least one howler.” So I have deliberately placed at least one typo somewhere in this piece in order to head off complaints of sloppiness.

Or maybe I haven’t. It’s best I cover myslef either way.