Typos: Funny or Foul?

17 comments
ill-eagle via Whall

I read everything—signs, cereal boxes, fine print—and I often notice how seemingly obvious errors and typos tend to go unnoticed by just about everyone. The occasional typo or error is no sin, but considering how easy it was for me to find examples of typos in my everyday life for this article, I do start to wonder:

  • Doesn’t anyone read things before they are printed, etched into metal, or screwed to a parking garage wall?
  • Does anyone care?
  • Do the readers of these signs assume that the sign is correct just because it’s been made permanent?

I tend not to go out of my way to point out errors or post pictures of hilarious typos on my Instagram, as most mistakes are innocent and harmless and not worth wasting good snark. On the other hand there are typos that are either terribly embarrassing or downright dangerous. For those, I do think a bit of well-directed ire or mocking is appropriate.

Typographical mistakes seems to fall into three categories which I have listed below from the innocent to the egregious.

1) Typographical error: an innocent mistake such as a missing or extra letter or accidentally typing a word twice, etc.

Let it Slide…

Let’s face it, no matter how diligent you are, you’re bound to miss something. I don’t know about you, but I can’t write or type as fast as I think, and I make all kinds of typos and silly errors just because I am trying to be fast or because I am trying to get that idea OUT OF MY HEAD!! There are probably typos in this article, and I’m sure one of you smart assess (I mean faithful readers *wink*) will find it and either point it out to me or graciously ignore it.

Take this example from the morning news in Portland on July 2nd.

A squirrel caused a large power outage, affecting about 9,6000 customers, in Washington County Wednesday morning, according to Portland General Electric.

I’m not mad about this at all. I can sympathize with a harried news reporter hurrying to get the story posted. Shit happens. I checked back a few hours later, and it had been fixed. When you click the link now, it says “9,600 customers.” No harm done. 

When typos are minimal, quickly corrected, or clearly innocent, I don’t get snarky. It’s an honest mistake, so un-wad your knickers, people, and get off your judgment pedestal—it could have been you.

Then there is autocorrect, which seems designed to create more errors than it corrects, but which is also innocent and equally as likely to trip you up.

Get Pissed!

In other cases, a typo may be an honest mistake, but when you consider how many opportunities there might have been to correct it, you could be justified in getting a bit annoyed. Take, for example, this sign from the bathroom in a downtown Portland building.

Sure, it’s just missing a tiny little ‘e’, but when you consider that it was written by one person, made into sign by another person, and posted on all 15 floors of the building by yet another person (or, perhaps, multiple people), you wonder why no one pointed it out along the way and said, Hey, this is wrong! Let’s fix it real quick. For my part, every time I’m in that building and I see it, I want to call the number and say, “I require an ‘e’ after the ‘r’ in ‘requirements’. Can you take care of that for me? Thanks. Oh, and we’re out of toilet paper up here, too.”

Then there is this sign in a Portland parking garage.

Now considering all the mentions of this being a “contract” between the parker and the company that owns and operates the garage, I’d ASSUME they’d have a least SOMEONE with some legal know-how and a firm grasp of the written language look at it before they printed a sign for all 8 levels of the garage.  Sure they peppered it with legal-sounding mumbo-jumbo like “bailment,” “hereby,” and “foregoing,” so it might appear to be legit. But, assume something does happen to my car while I’m parked on that property, I could, presumably, take this company to court on technicalities. Certainly something could be made of the inconsistent use of serial commas or the use of “it’s” instead of “its” or the missing apostrophe in the possessive use of the word “owner.” If I managed a business that housed hundreds of vehicles every day, I might be a little more careful about ensuring my signage is grammatically and legally sound.

If you think no one would bother to use a typo to place blame, take this recent example of a Seattle lawyer who fought his $189 speeding ticket because he found a rule in the DOT’s handbook for sign making that had a specific word-limit on signs. It’s not exactly a typo, but it was an oversight. And while a speeding ticket or a car break-in is a relatively minor thing, if a typo causes harm or serious confusion, then I feel justified in getting a little tiffy. Take this story, for example, of an inmate set free 30 months early due to a typo. Several people looked at the paperwork, but no one caught it until he was let loose only a few hours after sentencing. People get off on technicalities. Remember Johnny Cochrane at the OJ Simpson trial? “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit!”

2) Mistake of ignorance: misspelling a word or misusing/leaving out a word or punctuation mark because you didn’t know to use it.

Let it Slide…

Tolerance of these types of errors depends on who has committed the error and in what context. If your 8 year-old uses “are” instead of “our”—relax, it’s not a sin. If the offender’s first language is other than English, it’s okay to look the other way. (Besides, there is a chance that person knows English grammar better than you do since they may have actually learned it in school.) I lived in another country for a year, and while I’d studied the language for years ahead of my visit, I still made errors all the time. With a few exceptions, the denizens of my host country were gracious with my slip-ups and didn’t hold it against me.

Forgivable, too, are errors of ignorance by people who are generally well-spoken or capable of writing solid prose, but who may not be knowledgeable about or interested in the finer details of grammar and usage. These people may be engineers or doctors or executives or administrators who are smart and adept, but who might not know that “DVD” is technically an initialism, not an acronym, because it’s not pronounced as a word when used, such as “AWOL.” Or perhaps they use words and phrases that are common, though not correct. I tend to overlook such mistakes because 1) I might commit such an error myself, and 2) they are not stupid or lazy—they just have other things to worry about and be good at than grammar. That’s fine with me. A doctor does not have to know how to diagram a sentence to diagnose a disease.

As long as the message is clear enough for the intended audience to understand, it’s not worth shaming someone for it!

Get Pissed!

On the other hand, there are many examples of errors which can be both terrible and hilarious. Take this example of vandals misspelling their anti-immigration message by proclaiming that "no illeagals" would be welcome at a proposed shelter site. Obviously the people who wrote this do not know how to spell “illegals,” as I am sure they did not want their message to become joke-fodder for their democratic enemies.

Errors such as this one are too frequent to ignore. It only took me about 5 seconds on social media to find an example in which the writer thoroughly embarrassed him or herself by committing a misspelling in some rage-filled comment. While it makes for great comedy to those of us who care and who just LOVE the opportunity to throw something right back in someone’s stupefied face, the high frequency of these types of mistakes has actually started to disturb me. If you aren’t 100% sure how to spell something as you are whipping out the spray can—look it up! You have access to a world of information in your phone or on your computer. It’s pretty lazy to go through all the trouble of defacing property without making sure you know what you are writing first. Sheesh.

3) Willful ignorance: purposely misusing or leaving out words and punctuation marks in an attempt to either dumb-down your rhetoric or to appear “cool.”

Let it Slide…

In certain scenarios, text speak, or hacked-up slang may be appropriate. For instance, you might find it helpful if you are writing a character’s speech or trying to communicate with teenagers or working undercover as a member of a gang. Even I can admit that there are times when proper spelling and punctuation are not necessary or relevant. Language is an amazing and evolving thing that changes with time and usage, not when the Word Nerds get together and formally update the grammar books. In the case of language, it’s the users who drive change, not the enforcers.

Are grammatical errors and typos harmless or hurtful? Are they an indication of a society that’s failing intellectually?

In these cases, all that really matters is that the speaker/writer is understood by the intended audience. I may not know what Lil John means when he bellows, “TURN DOWN FOR WHAT!”, but I can accept that I am probably not the intended audience for that song. His fans, I assume, know what the hell he’s talking about.

Yes, there are people who just aren’t so good at writing, and no, they should not be barred from posting on social media or writing emails to friends and loved ones. The more I put myself out there publicly as a writing guru, the more feedback I’ve had from family and friends who ask me not to judge their emails to me. This saddens me a little because it makes me realize that people may avoid writing to me for fear that I will correct them or judge them. For the record, the only person who I hassle in this way is my husband—and only because it ticks him off so much and that’s the kind of love we share. I never go out of my way to correct people. Nor should I! The emails I write to them are RIDDLED with typos and half-formed thoughts. Not to mention, I’d rather just know how someone is doing, and I could give a lick about any errors or typos.

Get Pissed!

That said, sounding like you only have a first-grade education in all your communication is annoying and not cool. People who ACTUALLY have a first-grade education usually try to sound more educated than they are, and here are people with Masters and PhDs going out of their way to sound like a foul-mouthed toddler. It. Kills. Me. Recently, the mother of a 25-year-old confided to me that she hates when her son writes in half-assed hipster speak on Facebook. “He got all As in English class,” she lamented, “I know he knows better than that!” Now, I know it’s not cool to speak or write informally in complete sentences, but what does it say about a society that values sounding like a nincompoop over showing off one’s intelligence? Hmm?

Worse still are those who would call themselves “writers” and then never take the time to polish their writing. I once had the dubious task of reading submissions for a literary magazine, and I was shocked to come across an astonishing number of stories that had a decent plot but displayed a total disregard for any sort of writing rules. There is a point when calling it “art” isn’t enough to exempt it from following basic rules. Unless it’s for your diary only, take a little pride in your work. Learn the difference between there, their, and they’re. Capitalize your sentences, and end them with the appropriate punctuation. Unless there is a really good plot-affecting reason not to, observing the basic rules of writing does make a story more pleasurable to read. Turning a blind eye to craft is like calling yourself a guitarist and not knowing even how to string or tune the damned thing. It’s like telling everyone you are a carpenter, but not knowing the first thing about cutting wood and putting it back together. For a laugh, let’s watch the   “my boyfriend is a carpenter” skit from Portlandia. (And before you get all defensive, I’m not talking about any of you. If you are on LitReactor, chances are you care enough to learn and immerse yourself in a world of writing. Go you!)

As I am writing this, Weird Al Yankovic has released a new parody song called “Word Crimes” and it illustrates so clearly my last point. There are some people who really, really ought to consider how terrible their writing is before going out of their way to write rude comments. When you want to be taken seriously, attempt, at the very least, to take your words seriously.  While you may not remember the basics of your elementary school writing lessons, I assume you remember how to do basic addition, right? 2+2 = 4. Well, a sentence starts with a capital letter and ends with a period. Can you do that much at least?

Weigh in…

So, lovely LitReactor readers, what do you think? Are grammatical errors and typos harmless or hurtful? Are they an indication of a society that’s failing intellectually? Do you get mad when you see them? Or do you just laugh it off? Is there anything that can be done to lower the frequency of these mistakes?

Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.

Comments

Max Magee's picture
Max Magee from Maryland is reading Vineland by Thomas Pynchon July 22, 2014 - 7:57am

"Illeagles" news story, in case anyone is interested: http://www.carrollcountytimes.com/news/crime/ph-cc-graffiti-20140715,0,5723369.story

Seb's picture
Seb from Thanet, Kent, UK July 22, 2014 - 7:58am

Even I can admit that were are times when proper spelling and punctuation are not necessary or relevant.

Sorry, I just found this funny.

Josh Zancan's picture
Josh Zancan from Crofton, MD is reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck July 22, 2014 - 8:05am

For some reason, I'm a sucker for people using "them" instead of "those." As in, them guys over there. I can't explain why. Songwriters do this more than others, so that's the context I'm pulling from. 

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow July 22, 2014 - 8:17am

Yup. A typo. It happens. And it happens in ironic places. Lucky me. Seb gets a cookie today.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson July 22, 2014 - 9:02am

Even I can admit that were are times when proper spelling and punctuation are not necessary or relevant.

Aw, crumb nuts.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow July 22, 2014 - 9:07am

I know, Josh. There's always one.I fixed it. :-/ As I predicted, some smartass pointed it out for me.

There are probably typos in this article, and I’m sure one of you smart assess (I mean faithful readers *wink*) will find it and either point it out to me or graciously ignore it.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list July 22, 2014 - 11:45pm

I like when you can have a laugh about the typo. One of my students wrote: Insert the highly decorated rapper into your well greased hole. She was writing an expository essay on cupcake baking. Or one that I wrote personally in a story: He shit the door. That just sounds painful. Thankfully, the proofreader caught it :)

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated July 23, 2014 - 5:10am

I try to let it slide, unless it looks like someone rolled their head across the keyboard.  Just doesn't seem worth the time.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson July 23, 2014 - 6:13am

In this day and age, you should never use the term "well greased hole" for anything. Too risky.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list July 23, 2014 - 11:02pm

Haha, Josh, that is true. Her face turned an amazing shade of scarlet when I read it aloud to her.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow July 24, 2014 - 8:49am

Haha! I know I hate when those sorts of typos happen to me!! That shut/shit one kills me. Why did they have to put those two letters next to each other on the keyboard?

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated July 24, 2014 - 12:09pm

I thought it was to avoid jamming typewriters.  

Shaun Locke's picture
Shaun Locke July 24, 2014 - 4:06pm

smart assess(ment), indeed

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated July 25, 2014 - 5:10am

I was being literal.  Not saying Wikipedia is always right, but not sure who is a keyboard expert.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/QWERTY

The solution was to place commonly used letter-pairs (like "th" or "st") so that their typebars were not neighboring, avoiding jams.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow July 30, 2014 - 1:09pm

Interesting, Dwayne. I have always wondered why the keyboard is laid out in the QWERT style. 

You could have a problem, though, if you often had to type "suit" or "quit" a lot, though.

"I quit, I quit, I quit, I quit, I q--, oops! Jam!"

Dean McIntosh's picture
Dean McIntosh from Parramatta is reading My own work August 6, 2014 - 3:28am

Actually, DVD is an acronym for Digital Versatile Disc. They might have dropped it in the official write-ups, but when it was originally brought to market, they were very careful about emphasising that this new red-laser format could do more than just store videos. This is a peeve for me, similar to people mistaking the acronym for Blu-ray Disc as BRD when it is BD. But I digress.

Being autistic and linguistically inclined has made me very painfully aware of two things. One, just because both people in the conversation are using words in English does not mean they are actually speaking the same language. Two, there are certain kinds of people, I call them normies, who will go out of their way to distort and twist peoples' meanings. Using one's writing skills to point out to a person that there is a difference between suffering caused by what you are and suffering caused by the prejudicial actions of others is something that should not be so satisfying in this day.

As a final point, my being autistic means I definitely do not use language either aloud or in writing the way that you do, or expect me to. But you will never find a man who is more vigilant about making damned sure that readers can only misunderstand his words by deliberately choosing to. I wish more authors, especially ones who are not autistic or disabled or "anything" other than drop-kicked through the goalposts of privilege, would take the same care.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow August 6, 2014 - 10:49am

@Dean

"DVD" is actually an initialsm because you say the individual letters instead of making a word out of the letters. "NASA" would be an acronym because you say "Na-suh" instead of "N, A, S, A"

I wasn't very clear in the article about that, and I apologize. I thought for a VERY long time that all words created from the first letters of phrases or a group of words were called acronyms. Some Litreactor reader set me straight one day. (They say teaching is the best way to learn something...)

Anyway, if you'd like a little more linguistic knowledge, here you go:

  • Initialisms are made from the first letter (or letters) of a string of words, but can't be pronounced as words themselves. Examples include FBI, CIA, FYI (for your information), and PR (public relations).
  • Acronyms are made from the first letter (or letters) of a string of words but are pronounced as if they were words themselves. Examples include NASA, NIMBY (not in my backyard), and hazmat* (hazardous materials).
  • Abbreviations are any shortened form of a word. Examples include Oct. (October) and etc. (etcetera).

(Modified From: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/abbreviations-acronym...)

 

Thanks for reading!