Verbal Energy

The wages of typos – in pounds and pence

Surveying the range of typographical error around her, the Monitor's language columnist is tempted to despair; but hope springs eternal.

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Dear Reader, my subject this week is errors – typographical sins of all sorts, and how they can take over if we are not vigilant.

Grammar Monkeys, a blog by The Wichita Eagle copy desk, set forth a veritable taxonomy of typos recently. Titled "When spell-check won't help: How typos sneak into writing," the post cited "the one-letter-off typo," e.g., "The pops concert, canon launch and fireworks show." The single-"n" "canon" for "cannon" made me picture a clergyman flying through the air like a circus performer.

Another category was "the wrong word" – problems with homophones, or sound-alikes: "Police taser man after he fleas" (flees). There's the "one-letter-off 'facto,' " an error committed by those who miss the factual forest for the technical trees: "troops killed in the wars in Iran and Afghanistan." Oops, make that "Iraq."

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And then "the Cupertino effect": typos introduced by the very "autocorrect" software intended to save us from error. Ah, the typographical treason of these invisible servants! Why "Cupertino"? The autocorrect feature of some Apple software seems to construe just about any long word beginning with "c" as an attempt to write the name of the California city that is Apple's headquarters.

As the Language Log pointed out a few years ago, this is a particular issue within the European Union and NATO. So many civil servants there keep needing to write the word "cooperation." But since so many of them are not native speakers of English, they misspell it – "coperation," perhaps. Then boom! – suddenly it's "Cupertino."

As in this NATO press release from 2001: "[T]hat Secretary General Robertson is going to join this session this afternoon in the European Union headquarters gives you already an idea of how close and co-ordinated this Cupertino is and this action will be."

A few months ago, Copyediting, the language newsletter, ran a heartfelt column on how to convince Those Who Pay the Bills within a publishing organization that typos matter to the credibility of the product, and that time and money spent to prevent them are well spent. The concern is not that editors don't know better; it's that they're having to work too fast. The challenge, of course, is quantifying the monetary cost of editing errors.

But the column included a link to a BBC News report citing an online entrepreneur named Charles Duncombe who purportedly has figured out how to do just that:

"He says he measured the revenue per visitor to the tightsplease.co.uk website," which sells pantyhose and stockings online, "and found that the revenue was twice as high after an error was corrected."

Like many employers, he has trouble finding job candidates with good language skills. He's not a part of the copy-editing fraternity, but he makes an important point: The Web is still very much about writing, and there's value in getting it right.

As we all know, the Web has made it possible for anyone to reach, with just a few keystrokes, an audience once accessible only to those with printing presses. But this progress has not been error-free.

Just as I keep hoping, though, that journalism will find new economic models that acknowledge the value of independent reporting, the larger world of publishing may yet figure out new workflow models that balance the values of timeliness and accuracy.

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