Friday, September 13, 2013

Why We Hate Typos

 Everyone hates typos. We react to them in almost the same way we react to creepy insects. Disgust, revulsion, disbelief.

With respect to typos (though not to insects) there might also be an element of vanity involved. Few of us have actually proofed, much less written, a book, though many of us revere them. When we see a typo, we’re dismayed to consider that the underlings who made the book did not treat it with the respect it deserves. The author drew on a lifetime of gritty personal experience, tedious research, or feverish imagination to produce a work of staggering art or thought, and then the interns and proofers who looked it over failed to notice what anyone (even you or me) would notice: there are two ‘and’s in a row here; there’s an “in” missing there; it says “breath” where it should say “breathe.”  

Once you’ve proofed a book or two, you’ll understand how the experts miss such things, because you’ll find yourself missing them, too. Your wife will be looking over your shoulder and she’ll say, “Shouldn’t that be “fool” rather than “tool”? Egad!

I was recently working on a reprint of a novel by a locally famous author. The job required scanning the pages of the original book, using OCR technology to create a Word file, and then correcting the horrible text the software extracted from the image of the page line by line.

Here’s a sample of the scanned but uncorrected text. I see ten typos. (Let me know if you see more.)

Going through the 300-page Word document I found thousands of things to correct. (I also found eight typos in the original book, which was published by Atheneum.) I thought I’d done a pretty good job…but we decided to hand it off to a talented editor and proofer we know, just to make sure.

She found a few things I’d missed—about five hundred of them. In the course of making her corrections I found only three things she’d missed. We were reaching the point of diminishing returns.

How many more typos are out there? I have no idea. As the saying goes, “We’ll fix them in the next printing.”

All of this costs money, of course. And most books lose money anyway. Maybe someday publishers will start issuing two versions of every book. You can get an inexpensive version for 15.95, or wait for the proofed edition, which will cost you a few dollars more.

But the bigger message here is how much we tend to revere the printed word, thinking of it as not only perfect, but hallowed. A typo is a desecration.  It jolts us out of the magical world of literature and reminds us that we’re just looking at ink on a page. We don't linger there for long before heading back in.

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