It is by turns amusing and unsettling how much a small typo can alter the meaning of something.
For example, maybe you’ve seen someone list his title as “assistant manger,” which would make him a trough for horses and cattle to eat from.
A while back, I got an e-mail in which someone apologized for the “incontinence” instead of the “inconvenience.”
Hopefully, you’ve never accidentally left out the “l” in “Public” when writing the name of your school district.
Editors are trained to catch these types of gaffes, but we are human, after all, and are typically on tight deadlines. I subscribe to our esteemed local paper, the Los Angeles Times, and I often find an error or two without even going through the whole edition.
I’m just praying that this editorial ends up typo-free (except for the one you may have caught in the headline, which was intentional).
Of course, it’s not just spelling errors that can cause confusion. Accidentally leaving out what would seem to be an insignificant word can significantly change how a sentence comes across. I was reminded of that fact by an intriguing Washington Post article that I came across online recently.
Stopping a school bus?
A Virginia man who drove by a stopped school bus was let off the hook by a judge because of a missing word in the state’s school bus violations law. It reads:
“A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop, when approaching from any direction, any school bus which is stopped on any highway, private road or school driveway for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.”
As the Post reported, an “at” was deleted when the law was amended in 1970. So, technically, it says that you have to stop a stopped school bus rather than stop at a stopped school bus.
“He can only be guilty if he failed to stop any school bus, and there’s no evidence he did,” Judge Marcus Williams said in the trial of 45-year-old John Mendez.
When informed of Mendez’s acquittal, Virginia legislator David Albo told the Post, “That’s not good. That’s a very serious charge. That needs to be fixed.”
On Dec. 7, another legislator, Scott Surovell, pre-filed a bill that aims to eliminate the loophole by plugging in the missing “at.”
Train your eyes
Even if you’re not drafting state legislation, writing correctly is essential in making sure that your message won’t be misunderstood. Here are some tips based on common errors that we SBF editors see:
• A driver doesn’t “loose” his license — he “loses” it.
• A school bus has “brakes,” not “breaks” (unless it’s falling apart, that is).
• If you say that a bus is “stationery,” that means it’s writing material. If you want to say that it’s not moving, “stationary” is the right word.
• “Quite” is often accidentally used in place of “quiet.”
• Even the word “misspelled” itself is sometimes misspelled as “mispelled.”
The spell check on computer programs is helpful, but it won’t catch a mistake like the use of the wrong “breaks.”
Before you send out an e-mail or distribute a document, be sure to take a careful look over it. And if it’s a high-profile matter, have someone else review it as well.
I know I’ll be proofreading this editorial about a hundred times.
— Thomas McMahon, Executive Editor