GrammarPhile Blog

What's the Big Deal About Typos?

Posted by Terri Porter   Aug 6, 2015 6:30:00 AM


referee with red flagHaving read a spate of articles in recent months on the proliferation of typos in digital publications and communications, I’ve noticed a disturbing theme — essentially that typos are no big deal, that worrying about them squelches creativity and even that making them intentionally in some cases may be a good idea.

What’s Going On?!

One article by a Financial Times columnist argues that content is king and that a few errors here and there evidence only that the writer is human, not that the writing is good or bad or the author sloppy or unprofessional. She acknowledges her own penchant for making such errors, despite her best efforts to avoid them, and calls the indignation that leads to many an article or blog post about typos in the public eye “overdone.”

Another article, this one by a Forbes contributor, suggests that old grammar rules no longer apply in the face of a “new literacy” — in which people communicate with GIFs, Vines, soundtracks and a “full multimedia arsenal” — which he describes as a continually evolving art form that “has few rules and considerable latitude for improvisation.” The author cites a couple of sources who argue that content is ultimately more important than form. And although he (being a self-titled “former grammar snob”) doesn’t favor completely abandoning the pursuit of excellence in communication, he seems to view the commonplace acceptance of typos as inevitable.

Finally, a Harvard Business Review article suggests that typos in email may reveal something about the writer, which, in the often faceless world of digital communication, may prove advantageous. “What makes errors so believable is that they make you seem less competent” and therefore, the author argues, more authentic. He even goes so far as to posit that making a strategic typo or two might be a good idea in some situations, although he acknowledges the trade-off one must consider before doing so: “Is it more important in the situation to seem more emotionally authentic (by making errors) or competent (by making no errors)?”

50+ Shades of Gray

Some of the above arguments are valid:

  • We are human, and humans err.
  • Communication methods and language continually evolve.
  • Conveying emotional intent in faceless communication can be challenging.

BUT … the authors’ conclusions above don’t necessarily follow from their valid arguments. The Financial Times columnist, for example, points to another article as support, which asserts that typos get through not because we’re stupid or careless, but because “what we’re doing is actually very smart.” The explanation is that because writing is a high-level task focused on communicating complex ideas, the brain while writing tends to generalize simpler jobs, “like turning letters into words and words into sentences.”

Seeing errors in our own work is challenging because what we see on the screen competes with the version we have in our heads. So by the time we proofread what we’ve written, we already know where the piece is going and tend to overlook some of the details (i.e., typos, grammatical errors) of how it gets there. Because readers don’t have access to the writer’s brain and the piece’s ultimate destination, they tend to focus more on the details along the way and can thus spot errors more easily.

That explanation of why we overlook errors in our own writing makes perfect sense — and it certainly makes the case for having someone else (say, a professional editor) review what you’ve written before submitting the final version.

But the original author uses that finding to justify her assertion that “typos and spelling mistakes don’t really matter” — that what we write is far more important. The second writer not only agrees but then takes grammar purists to task for their inflexibility in adapting to new means of communication. And the third author actually encourages intentional typos in some instances, suggesting that authenticity and intelligence/competence can’t coexist. (And he apparently misses the irony inherent in purposely making errors to appear authentic ….)

The essential problem with all three approaches (aside from their defense of or contributions to the dumbing down of language) is that they present black-and-white, either/or scenarios, which just don’t work in the gray, often murky, fields of writing and editing.

Relaxing the Rules Doesn’t Mean Abandoning Them

As we often espouse on this blog, CONTEXT is king. Should editing rules be relaxed for business writing in social media channels associated with a sense of immediacy (e.g., email, texting, Twitter, Vines, Instagram, Facebook, etc.)? Probably. Does that mean regular typos and grammatical errors are OK? No way. Making such errors consistently diminishes both the writer’s and the company’s credibility and can obscure meaning, which can have serious reputational and financial consequences.

“Relaxing the rules” doesn’t mean making typos acceptable (much less intentional). It means, for example, being less concerned with stylistic issues such as consistency in using numerals, capitalization, punctuation and complete sentences — all stuff that matters in more formal contexts.

Given the enormous amount of copy published every day, both online and in print, errors are bound to happen. But the leap from acknowledging that’s the case to accepting that we can’t (or shouldn’t try to) do better is huge, and it’s one we at will never make.

What do you think? Is the tide turning toward greater acceptance of/complacency about typos in the business arena? Do a few typos here and there make a writer seem more authentic? Can the “new literacy” coexist with more traditional approaches? Let us know in the comments below.


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Topics: typos, proofreading quality, typographical errors, dumbing down of language

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