Thursday, 17 November 2011

Typos and Other Pubic Embarrassments

10 proofreading shortcuts for the lazy copy editor
'Public' relations were never this man's forte.
During my two years as in-house copy editor and proofreader for the Japan Financial Services Agency, I had a vast swath of documents grace my desk. Most of them were deathly boring and totally forgettable, but every now and again I would get something memorable. One such occasion was when I was asked to proofread a series of thank-you letters from the JFSA addressed to the now dead and deposed Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, his then minister of finance and several other members of his government. (I can’t remember exactly what these were for but I think one or another Japanese bank was opening a branch in Tripoli.)

What I do remember very clearly was that one of the letters had an embarrassing misspelling of the word ‘public’. (This wasn’t in the letter to the Colonel himself but to one of his apparatchiks.) For an instant I was seriously tempted to let it pass, thinking that the letter might cause an incident within the Libyan government that might contribute to destabilizing the regime – this was back in 2007, well before the Arab Spring. But in the end I did my job and corrected the mistake. After all, I didn’t really want some innocent government translator with the Libyan government to get shot over something like this.

This wasn’t the first time I had seen ‘pubic’ in a document instead of ‘public’. In fact, in my many years of editing and proofreading I’ve made a habit of doing a word search for ‘pubic’, especially when I’m faced with a large document wherein things like this can easily get lost or overlooked. Spellcheckers have made us all lazier and egregious typos like this that once wouldn’t have stood a chance now escape capture on a regular basis. I was once editing a document for the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Association which made at least one reference to ‘unclear power’. Granted, in light of the Fukushima disaster, ‘unclear’ is a pretty apt description for this particular organization’s PR modus operandi, but as a professional proofer you can’t let that sort of thing pass.

Most of the typos that slip the net are less amusing than these, but no less embarrassing for a client – and the proofreader assigned to catch them. The best way to catch the common ones is through a word search. Here are ten words I often, if not always, search for in a large document before I even start the laborious process of proofreading.

1) Pubic / Public – Seriously, look for it. I’ve seen it more than twice and there’s no more embarrassing a typo in the English language.

2) Than / That – This is, of course, a more common word than ‘pubic’ and will take you more time, but it’s a very common mistake and one that’s easy to glance over. Trust me – I’ve made this mistake before.

3) Form / From – This is a typo in the same category as #2. The word ‘form’ is invariably going to be less common than ‘from’, so it makes sense to look up the former before the latter.

4) World / Word – This is a surprisingly common one. I think it’s because the letter ‘L’ is located right underneath the letter ‘O’ on the keyboard. I’ve seen this mistake go both ways, so both words are worth looking up.

5) An / And / Nad – This one will usually get underlined by your grammar checker, so it’s perhaps not as much of a priority, and it’s going to take you quite a while to sift through all the ‘an’s’ in a long document. Still, I’ve seen it slip the net more than once, so it might be worth your while. And while last time I checked ‘nad’ is not an officially accepted English word (except in the Beavis & Butthead universe), I have seen it in print before, in places where ‘and’ was obviously the intended word.

6) Allot / A lot – Most of us had this one drilled into us by high school English teachers enough that we no longer write 'alot' - and in any case your spellchecker will catch this one. Nevertheless, ‘allot’ with two L’s is a correct English word, and if you’re typing at breakneck speed trying to get through an assignment, it’s easy enough to type that instead of ‘a lot’.

7) Wed / We – Especially when you're tying fast and writing something like 'We did it' you're liable to end up typing 'Wed it it' or something like that. Worth looking for.

8) Tit / It – Yes, this is a fun one that’s definitely up there with ‘pubic’ in the embarrassment category. I’ve been doing word searches for this one ever since a university professor of mine told me a horror story involving this particular word and the introductory chapter of his doctoral thesis.

9) Massage / Message – Not quite as suggestive as ‘tit’ or ‘pubic’ but just as potentially embarrassing – and surprisingly common.

10) Defence / Licence / Centre / Honour etc. – If you’re from the US or any other jurisdiction that opts for American spellings in English, you can disregard this once. But if you’re from Canada or elsewhere in the Commonwealth and using Microsoft Word (which always seems to revert to American English), you’re going to want to look for these, as Word has a nasty habit of switching them automatically.

BONUS: Typo / Type – Trust me, you don't want to misspell the word 'typo'. That's just plane plain embarrassing.

For a look at the far-reaching economic impact of spelling mistakes, read this BBC article.


  1. Great post, Ben.

    Not sure whether this is true, but I'd heard a story about a spiteful person who printed "Edmonton Pubic Library" on some stationery and no one noticed until a customer sent a strongly worded letter expressing her utter

    More to the point, your post got me thinking that a troublesome word pair for me (given that I work for a post-secondary institution) might be faculty/faulty. Imagine the fallout if I were to write "Our faulty would like to acknowledge your support of our scholarship programs." Whoops!

  2. Good call on 'Faulty'. I don't recall ever having seen that one but it would be an easy slip-up.