Typos, Unintended Meanings, or a Poorly Selected Word Will Undermine Your Message

Editing errors can happen to anyone. And I do mean everyone. Newspapers with considerable copyediting staff still allow big errors to make it through to the next editions. Just today (August 24), the Philadelphia Inquirer posted a map of the region, and mislabeled the highway that traverses New Jersey. Granted, knowing that the road is interstate 195, not 176, will not be all that meaningful, but it is incorrect and should have been caught by those living in the area.

On any given day, typos appear in that bastion of dailies, the New York Times, and what really surprises me is the frequency with which those errors appear in the copy people most often read: Figure captions and highlights. In the Times, specifically, you’ll not see any typos in their headlines or subheads, but this is not the case with some other dailies.

I found this on the Web, attributed to the Sacramento Bee:

“State’s Population to Double by 2040: Babies to Blame”

Obviously, this is not a typo, and technically not “fake news,” but I doubt that babies are the cause.

The objective of this column is not simply to take newspapers to task; it is to increase everyone’s vigilance in writing and reviewing copy. Sometimes, our word processor’s spell check function gets the better of us. Take for example, the following sign over a newly constructed water fountain in Tyler State Park in 2019:

“Water fountain not yet operating. Sorry for the incontinence.”

Yes, incontinence would be highly inconvenient, but that’s not the thought they intended.

In other cases, unintended meanings crop up in copy that was not worded in the best way possible. I like to cite one example in a local paper’s classifieds section:

“Dog for sale: Eats most anything; fond of children.”

We can assume that the author meant children to be companions rather than dinner.   

Then there are the errors or typos that may be found on any website, newsletter, or E-mail blast: They don’t spell out a different word, don’t have an ambiguous meaning, or even result in a smile. They just look unprofessional. They are simply and obviously wrong. For small businesses, this can become a real issue in blogs, corporate presentations, contracts, and even the company’s website landing page.

The last thing anyone wants is to seem unprofessional. Yet not taking the proper care in communications can result in just this situation.

Even prominent city or national newspapers with large editorial staffs struggle with this problem every day. Your company can probably use some help here, too.

My advice is simple: Have two or three people read over any copy your organization wants to broadcast, and make at least one of those people a professional copyeditor.

Any communication within or outside of your company can give the wrong impression—words do matter, not just what they say but how they appear.

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