Columns > Published on July 22nd, 2014

Typos: Funny or Foul?

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?

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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