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Proofreading Hacks: What's at Stake

Most tangibly, uncaught typos have caused enormous monetary losses. In 2006, Alitalia mistakenly posted the price of business class flights from Toronto to Cyprus as $39.00 instead of $3,900.00. By the time they realized the error, almost 2,000 such tickets had been sold. To avoid a PR disaster, Alitalia decided to honor the mistaken price, for a loss of $7.2 million.

In 1988, a travel agency Yellow Pages ad for "exotic travel" instead came out as "erotic travel." Just one letter was wrong, but the travel agency said it lost 80% of its business because of the typo, and it sued Pacific Bell for $10 million.

In 2015, the British government reported that Taylor & Sons, a family engineering company founded in 1875, had gone out of business. In fact, it was a completely different company called Taylor and Son that went out of business. Two months later, the firm that had been wrongly named had lost so much business that it could not recover. A court-imposed a $17 million judgment (8.8 million pounds Sterling) on the British government for this fatal mistake.

Another real-life consequence involves the fate of criminals, rather than money. In Maine, an accused thief named Albert Marcheterre escaped from the Aroostook County Jail while awaiting trial and was not caught until 33 years later because the man's last name was misspelled as Maschererre on the warrant issued after his escape.

But my favorite criminal-related typo story took place in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where a man handed a bank teller a note that read: "Give me your 10s and 20s and no die pack." (spelled DIE instead of DYE). The teller was so flummoxed by the misspelled word that she had to read and reread the note to realize that this was an attempted robbery. Indignant, she crumpled up the note and told the guy, "I'm not giving you any money. Now get the hell out of here." He did.

You see, your proofreading failures can make it hard for people to take you seriously. They draw the conclusion that you are poorly educated, that you do not pay attention to details, that you are not professional. In turn, those inferences can knock you out of the running for jobs or business opportunities – even bank robberies. Maybe you feel that's unfair. But really, from the point of view of the person seeing your sloppiness, it's hard not to conclude that you just don't care.

For example, my first name, Marcia, is spelled M A R C I A. I can't tell you how many times – well, it's many dozens of times – I receive emails where the correct spelling is right there in front of the person writing an email to me – it's right there, they don't even need to move their cursor to look it up – and instead of "Hi M A R C I A," they type "Hi M A R S H A." An Australian woman whose first name Bri (B-R-I) often gets misspelled said in a blog post, "Honestly, when a client I have corresponded with misspells my name, a little bit of my desire to work with them dies. It shows they do not care about forging a respectful connection with me."

If you feel average people don't notice things like that and don't care, you are wrong. A web developer who was testing a financial services website for a client told me that typos, along with broken links and navigation glitches, so alarmed the users in his test that all the testers independently stopped dead in their tracks and refused to continue using the website out of fear that the site would steal their money.

In a UK survey of 1000+ adults, 59 percent said bad grammar or misspellings stop them from buying from a website, most saying they wouldn't trust the company to provide good quality service. Others said online bloopers evidenced carelessness or unprofessionalness. At the lending site Lending Tree, loan requests containing spelling mistakes were less likely to attract funding from peers.

And it's not just older folks schooled before the Internet who harshly judge mistakes. When SurveyMonkey asked 1000+ American adults if mistakes on a website would make them think twice about buying there, 85 percent of Millennials said yes.

Indeed, government and banking websites often tell us that we should take obvious spelling mistakes (obvious to us, that is) in emails or websites as a sign that an offer is a scam. For example, the Attorney General's office in Michigan warns explicitly that misspellings, typos, and bad grammar are signs that an email is trying to trick you.

Surely you wouldn't want potential customers to lump you in with spammers or scammers.

Keep in mind that the more educated or literate someone is, the more likely they are to notice and care about poor proofreading. A New York Times editor once said, "When it comes to misprints, we get letters, emails, phone calls, and complaints on Twitter. Readers have even been known to buttonhole editors on elevators, at cocktail parties, and in the local bodega to complain about typos."

There's a lawyer who so far has managed to remain anonymous who posts on Twitter every day the typos he finds in the New York Times. His account has almost 13,000 followers, including editors at the Times who often immediately correct the errors he flagged. One of the reasons he's so vigilant in his own legal writing as well as in his hobby of proofreading the Times, he says, is "If you're trying to get a case into the Supreme Court, which I do on occasion, you want to signal in all sorts of ways that you're terribly competent, and one way of doing that is not typing typos."

A reporter for the New York Times compares a typo to having spinach in your teeth. The lawyer's Twitter finds are as embarrassing, he says, as a dining companion who climbs on top of a table in a crowded restaurant, points to your teeth, and yells, "Gross! Spinach!"

If you look through the reviews on Amazon of self-published books, it's common to see readers who bought a book complaining about a lack of proofreading and saying that's it for that author for them. For instance, here is a review of a book – it's the fifth book in the series, so you'd think the author would have mastered the art of proofreading by then, but no. "Poor-quality proofreading turned me off this book. I was barely a few pages into this book, and I was shaking my head at all the spelling and grammar mistakes. It eventually got to the place that the story couldn't take my mind off all the mistakes. I'm going to delete it from my Kindle and avoid this author in the future."

Whether you're proofreading your own blog or your boss's, emails, web copy, books, store signs, or ads, your goal in learning the catch-the-glitch hacks in this course is not persnickety correctness for its own sake, but rather the elimination of errors that break the spell, that intrude on the reader and that cast a shadow on the writer's (or the company's) competence and character.

Now that we've laid the groundwork for a proper understanding of the impact of proofreading, let's proceed to when to proofread in the next lesson.

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Written by

Marcia Yudkin