Why do typos bug us so much?

“Errors in copy tell me, ‘this text wasn’t worth my time to proofread, so it’s not worth your time to read’.” I said this to an author today (not one of mine). This person is currently in the middle of quite the heroic effort to keep typos out of her novel. She has multiple levels of proofreaders swinging away at those tehs, including beta readers, proofers, and an actual editor in there.

I was trying to be encouraging; however, it wasn’t necessarily taken that way. That remark comes across as a bit snobby, actually. Why?

Errors in writing are common. Try typing anything more than a few words without using the delete key, and you’ll see that it’s difficult indeed to type pure, error-free text. Even people who were trained on typewriters had correction tape and white-out to fix their (one-would-hope) rare mistakes. For text to have no errors whatsoever is rare. It signifies that someone not only wrote it (well, yeah) but they read their own writing (never fun), and likely had someone else read it as well.

The corollary of all this is that a block of text with mistakes in it is common. Eliminating errors, therefore, is an attempt to not be commonplace. Might one call it elitist? I think nit. (You could extend this same argument to well-written essays and books: These are rare and precious.)

When the written word is the ritten werd, we notice. We think about the words and the letters, and not the message. When someone doesn’t want me to pay attention to their message, it makes me think they don’t have one.

It could also be that writing clean copy is a sign of someone who loves language, and your typical forum-rat certainly does not. (The few posts in a thread worth reading are usually the ones with a good point and a good proofreading eye.)

I’ll go right on being “elitist”, if it means I can be picky about the language I love.

Did I miss anything here? Please discuss in the comments.

I’m proud to say that the only typos that the so-called “proofread” function in WordPress caught are the ones I introduced deliberately. Yay me!


6 thoughts on “Why do typos bug us so much?

  1. Do you have room for one more in your “elitist” club? I think you described me well; language is a joy to me, and it’s irksome that some don’t take the time or effort to present what they’re communicating in a clean and elegant way. It’s like showing up for a business meeting in a t-shirt and sandals. Sometimes I delay myself in publishing because I’m re- and re- and re-reading my articles, not only to check for typos but also to make sure each word is placed just so, to achieve the desired overall effect or give the piece the tone I want. To me, a well-turned phrase is to be appreciated as a work of art, just as one would appreciate an early Picasso, or a Strauss waltz. So lovely in form and function…. I have Master Tolkien to thank for that character flaw in me, due primarily to his “Leaf by Niggle” as well as his other work.

    1. There’s always room for one more snob in the club!

      For me, it was Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain who first showed me that language can be a beautiful thing. Vonnegut showed me that simple language can say more than it does on the surface — such simple, elegant language! Mr. Clemens’s writing is meandering and undisciplined, or at least it seems until you realize that he planned it that way all along; he had firm control over what every word he used was saying.

      Later in life, I discovered Gene Wolfe, Gore Vidal, Dan Simmons, and Neil Gaiman, who all have some of the same love of language, all in different ways.

    2. Oh, and Jeff, would you like to do a guest post here sometime? Based on your blog, you can obviously write well! (You can get in touch through the contact link at the top of the page.) Thanks!

  2. Language is so much more than a medium of communication. It is the building block of articulated perception and experience. I developed such a fascination with language when I understood the way it shaped our thoughts, and vice versa. The turn of a phrase in English is not the same in another language, so I dived into linguistics. To me, spoken words became the first step to declaring reality. Written words could be rearranged in so many ways. I decided it needed to be precise, and I wanted precision. In time, I expected it.

    I kept a journal for many years, starting when I was eighteen years old. I abhorred scratched out entries, so I began to form my ideas in my head before I wrote on the page. I took the relationship from friendship to a love affair. Words mattered. Grammar mattered.

    Is it snobbery, or an artist’s desire for perfection? Is that kind of expectation harsh in an age of word processors and spell checkers?

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