Duck Soup: Typos

Last week I read a book of essays by a well known naturalist. In the introduction the author heaped praise on his editor and publisher, a man who is the scion of a publishing family with a long history of impressive literary production. In the fourth of six short paragraphs there was a typographic error. The sentence begins, "A change meeting in the offices of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society..." but what the author meant to say was, "A chance meeting ..."This is not the random typographic error of the good old days of typesetters and printer's devils. This is one of those thoroughly modern typos brought to us by computers. The spellchecker is replacing the human reader, and ubiquitous error is the result. Spotting such a slip in a sentence which praises the publishing industry is amusing, but the frequency of such errors is becoming a pain in the neck. I rarely read a book or magazine these days that does not contain such malapropisms. We read that it is "high tine for a revision" or that "the ship's mask slapped off in mid-ocean" and must back up and re-read. Computers are excellent at finding misspelled words but they are lousy with context. The modern typo is a correctly spelled but incorrect word -- the sort of error almost instantly evident to a human brain. "Almost" is the problem. I am about five words past the blunder when it really sinks in. Then I go back to the beginning of the sentence, or more often the paragraph, and start over again. This time I am interrupted not only by the mental correction necessary, but by the thought that many editors are either overworked or have become slackers, while dozens of assistant editors have been laid off by publishers more concerned with profit than accuracy, that millions of readers are backing up and re-reading along with me, and that it just is not right.Computers have streamlined composition, editing and printing. They have enabled an explosion of desktop publication. They permit near instantaneous transfer of pictures and text. But they should not be an excuse for sloppiness. On the contrary, with so many tasks automated, there is less reason than ever for printed material to be wrong. A generation ago resetting type was an arduous chore, today it is a matter of a couple of keystrokes. The other day I read a letter to the editor in one of my favorite monthlies, and was tickled to see the word "who" spelled "double-u, oh, aitch," which I guess you would pronounce as "woe." It was an honest to god, old fashioned typo, untouched by the nefarious spellchecker. What a pleasant relief to see real human error instead of a mechanical glitch. I am tempted to write a grateful letter of thanks, but fear it could result in the firing of the editor -- a friend of mine -- for failing to use her spell program which would surely have caught the goof.Just to be sure, I looked up "double-u, oh, aitch" in a couple of dictionaries. After all, it seemed conceivable that there was such a word, and that the misspelling had passed mechanical muster after all. To my great relief it did not appear. But in passing, I noticed the words "wolfish" and "wolf fish" and how perfectly such disparate creatures illustrate my frustration.If I were to tell you that I find the "wolfish most annoying" it is a far cry from considering the "wolf fish most annoying." Both statements scampered unquestioned through my spellchecker, but the first phrase might refer to people who take more than their share, and the second to something that nibbles at my toes as I wade toward Europe. If I suggest we should feed the wolfish to the wolf fish it makes a great difference to my meaning which creature is the subject and which the object of my intent. So I will be explicit. I think we should chop up the greedy publishers who won't pay for human readers to scan and edit their printed matter and feed them to the hungriest fish in the sea. Sloppy editors will walk the plank as well, with unabridged dictionaries tied to their feet. I feel better already.


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