Typos

Everyone who writes makes typos. I certainly do. A while ago, I was writing a piece about insurance and discovered I’d invented an entirely new type of policy — against fire and food.

Needless to say, I corrected it, and that’s really the point. You won’t avoid making typos, but the aim has to be to catch them all before your target reader ever sees the piece.

There are many reasons for typos, and not all are due to ignorance of spelling or grammar. Sometimes our finger just hits the wrong key (or taps the wrong virtual key, as the case may be). Sometimes our mind moves ahead to a word we’re going to type and confuses it with the one we’re typing. Sometimes we simply forget to type a word, or type it twice.

Typos have always been around. Anyone who studies old documents (as I do sometimes) can tell you that the idea everyone in the “old days” could spell faultlessly and used perfect grammar is a complete myth. One kind of typo, though, has become prevalent recently, and that’s confusing words with similar or identical pronunciation.

Even supposedly reliable sources like the BBC website will sometimes confuse there, their and they’re, it’s and its, or bear and bare (“grin and bear it” is not the same as “grin and bare it”), and a more puzzling tendency is to use weary instead of wary. Perhaps the most common, though, is to assume that led (past tense of lead) is spelt the same as lead (the heavy metal).

The main reason for the rise of this kind typo is the automatic spellchecker. A spellchecker is a valuable tool. So is a hammer, but you wouldn’t expect it to bang nails in by itself. Many people, though, seem to assume the spellchecker will do all their work for them. All it actually tells you is whether the word exists (or, rather, exists in its database), not whether it’s the right word. If you type bare, the spellchecker isn’t to know you meant bear — you need a dictionary for that.

So why do a few spelling mistakes matter? It depends on the situation, of course, but sometimes it can matter a lot, especially if there are legal implications, or if you’re drafting a diplomatic document.

It’s more likely, though, that you could offend your readers. One of the most notorious typos in publishing history was in a 17th century edition of the Bible, which included the commandment: Thou shalt commit adultery. Back then, that might have been enough to land the publisher in the Tower, but even today you could lose customers by causing offence, or simply by looking unprofessional.

It’s vital that you make a careful manual check of anything you write, only using the spellchecker as an extra back-up. It’s often useful to read it through in a different format — printed out, on a different device, changed to a different font (though preferably not Wingdings). Many professional proof-readers check documents from bottom to top, to avoid getting too drawn into the overall meaning.

However you do it, make sure that what goes out is what you intend to say. Unless, of course, you actually want to invent a new kind of insurance policy.

P.S. If you should find any typos here, they’re simply a subtle illustration of the problem. Honest — would I lie?

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