I’ve been stumbling upon mistakes in places where I have rarely noticed them in the past: The New York Times Book Review, The Visual Thesaurus Word of the Day, even the J. Peterman catalog, which used to be known as the best example of catalog writing out there.
These are not all homonym problems, but a variety of typos, misspellings, misuses, and missing words.You’re not the only one making mistakes. Everyone needs an editor, even the editor. But let’s try to learn something from these mishaps.
First, two examples from the Visual Thesaurus Word of the Day, a daily email I really enjoy receiving and which usually is very well written and edited.
- Border Crossing Word of the Day: limbo
Theologians get credit for introducing this Latin word (meaning "border") that originally denoted a place where your not-quite-pure soul might cool its heals, whilst awaiting a possibly better final destination.
(Your soul, if it had feet, would be more likely to be “cooling its heels,” I imagine than “cooling its heals.”)
- Say What You Will Word of the Day: bequeath
The wish to assert a controlling hand after you’ve cashed in your chips is surely as hold as humanity, for bequeath — give by will after your death -is among the first words to appear in English.
(Here a simple typo, “hold” for “old” gives the phrase an interesting alliterative twist, but warps the meaning.)
In a review of the book, “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” by David McCullough, written by Stacy Schiff, in a section talking about the Franco-Prussian War, I found this:
- A reliable topic of conversation in Paris, food was the principal one during the German siege, when cat meat revealed itself be a delicacy and Paris solved its rat problem.
(Just a tiny word, “to,” is missing, but it makes the whole sentence wrong.)
In the J. Peterman catalog, in a description for the Tie-Shoulder-Dress, the generally witty copy was marred by this example of a misused word:
- Let’s not even mention the fact there’s a cocktail with your namesake at the Polo Lounge. Yes, yes, your capriciousness always keeps them guessing.
(The cocktail cannot be “with your namesake.” It can be a cocktail with your name or named after you. For namesake to work in this sentence, it would need to say the cocktail is your namesake.)
And last but not least, I found this in a local magazine, in the letter from the editor:
- Jacob McGee is called a high-rise technician. That might not mean much for most of us. But he’s the guy who straps himself into a harness and repels down high-rise buildings to clean their windows. Well, weather permitting, of course.
(I guess he hopes he repels from instead of attracts to the building as it might hurt when he smashes into it. It would probably be safer if he rappelled.)
Sometimes you see them, sometimes you don’t.
Although they’re always out there, lurking, periods of time go by where I just don’t notice too many juicy homonym horrors. Then again, sometimes they just seem to be everywhere I look. It’s been a slow period, but here are several I collected in recent months.
Last week I saw one in an invitation to a winery event that sounded really great, even if the food descriptions had gone a bit awry
- This week…will prepare some special hors d’oeuvres in addition to our normal fair. Chef…will serve wild mushroom bites with a red wine sauce, wanton cups filled with mandarin chicken salad and mini onion tartlets with goat cheese. Truly tasty!
I’m sure it all is truly tasty, but when we’re talking about food it’s generally fare, not fair, unless you’re talking about fair trade. As for those wanton cups, just tell them to stop that inappropriate behavior. I’m guessing they meant wonton cups, as in something made from a wonton wrapper.
In March I was reading a really fun and fascinating book, J. Maarten Troost’s “The Sex Lives of Cannibals.” I had barely begun when I came upon this:
- Enwetak was being canvassed as a sight for testing the hydrogen bomb and the drilling indicated that the atoll was suitable for obliteration.
The author explains in the book how some of these atolls are really difficult to spot from the sea until you’re practically right on them, but in this case I think he meant site, as in place or location, not sight, as in able to see something.
In the February issue of Consumer Reports, Goofs, glitches, gotchas section,
someone sent in a Political ad saying:
- Guy Glodis Will Reign in Wasteful Political Spending.
Of course they meant “rein in” not reign in. I don’t think they wanted to say that their candidate was the king of political spending. But you have to visualize reining in a horse and know what reins are to pick the right word.
Glodis lost the race. The power of words?
Reading a lot can turn you into a tough audience, a real critic. I notice things and am appalled. Maybe most people don’t notice.
I’ve written emails to book publishers, small business owners and large company webmasters pointing out typos. Usually they’re appreciative.
Are the typos in their ad for an editor part of the testing process? Did they really mean to misspell the name of their product?
This doesn’t mean that I don’t need my own proofreader or editor. We all do. I might be better than most at catching things, but let’s face it—if you’ve been working on a piece and seen it over and over as it’s been written and edited, sometimes you just can’t see it anymore. So having others proofread can be invaluable.
Fresh eyes can see a lot more than ones that have already read something 20 times. And don’t forget to get someone to double-check all the important details like phone numbers, email addresses and the spelling of the CEO’s name.
There are all the usual tricks such as taking a break before reading the piece again, reading it backwards, reading it aloud.
If someone has added a tiny change, even one word, beware. Cutting and pasting in even small edits can create new errors. Double “the” anyone? One changed word can lead to sentences that no longer make sense. So don’t slack off before you get to the final version.
Editing online text can be more forgiving. At least you can make changes easily, unlike after you’ve printed 10,000 paper copies of something. But still, typos online look unprofessional.
So use your word processor’s spellchecker, even if it’s not perfect. And use your eyes and whoever else’s eyes you can borrow to take a gander. Review what you’ve written. You may never achieve perfection, but you almost certainly can do better than people who never proofread do.