My mission as Word Engineer is to lift the quality of writing in the world, one document and one writer at a time. If you are one of my customers, my goal is to help you to improve your writing to such a level that, once I retire, you won’t need my services anymore.
Okay, I think that the first draft of my mission statement may be a bit on the wordy side. And possibly too honest.
One of the blessings – or is it a curse? – of being a natural proofreader is that I see spelling mistakes like submariners hear klaxons. A typo jumps out at me like a jack-in-the-box and shouts ‘Dire! Dire! Dire!’
Dire! Dire! Dire!
Wait! Wait!...Cancel that, I guess it says 'helf'. (Gary Larson, The Far Side)
Those words caption one of my favourite cartoons from a Far Side book from the late 1980s. It shows a rescue pilot looking down at a man dressed in rags – à la Tom Hanks – on a deserted island, next to the word “HELP” written in the sand. But the loop of the “P” is not quite joined up…
Just weeks ago, three fishermen who were stranded on a Micronesian island were able to communicate their wishes to searchers by spelling – correctly – the letters SOS on the sand of the island they were stranded on. They were spotted by Australian and US aircrew and were then visited by a helicopter from the Australian navy ship HMAS Canberra.
(Not sure what happened to the Americans. Perhaps it could have been read as "S05" - I suppose that last letter could have been done with more curve on the top...)
Without tapping too much into any dormant saviour complex I may have, one day, I could save a life. Literally. Because, literally, correct spelling can do that.
That, and writing your message in the sand clearly, and above the high tide mark.
You will have been warned, I trust, about the importance of correct comma placement. ("Let’s eat Grandad", anybody?) But there are more far-reaching examples than cartoons, or embarrassing typos in newspaper headlines, or stories from my family (RIP, Grandad).
Air New Zealand’s 1978 Mt Erebus disaster in Antarctica, for instance, appears to have been the result of a typo.
“But undoubtedly what completely shifted the course of the inquiry was when it was revealed that an Air New Zealand staffer had programmed the computer onboard the aircraft incorrectly, accidentally making a typo of two wrong numbers in a set of coordinates. This set the aircraft on a trajectory 27 miles off course of what the pilots expected, leading them right into Mount Erebus.”
Riots raged and two people died in the aftermath of Pepsi’s massive – potentially $32 billion – typo in the Philippines in the early 1990s. The number 349 will never again be the same for the 600,000 “winners” – nor will it be for Pepsi, I’d imagine.
Back down here in the world of everyday spelling mistakes, what are the worst typos you’ve ever seen?
Many years ago, in a Southeast Asian country, I remember seeing a motorbike with "HOMDA" emblazoned in large letters on the back of the seat. I suspect that the misspelling may have had more to do with lawsuit evasion than lazy writing.
Time for confession
My worst typo ever? Actually, it was my worst almost-disaster. It happened when the auto-correct function replaced my word "blockwall" with "brothel".
Spell check can only get you so far.
Luckily for me, I am a human spell checker and I detected the problem before clicking Send.
Now that I’ve had more time to think about it, my mission statement doesn’t go nearly far enough.
I am here to save the world from bad writing, to save writers from the ignominy of having their writing become the subject of cautionary tales, to help companies save face. And, wherever possible, to save lives.
Spell. Check. Can. Only. Get. You. So. Far. (To use an annoying. But. Popular. But very annoying. Way. Of. Emphasising. Something. Really. Important.)