Revisited: Warning — Post contains (typo)graphic violence

Recently, a near-panic on Wall Street dropped the Dow almost a thousand points in just a few minutes. It was later discovered the plunge might be attributable to a trader who meant to sell a million shares of stock but instead typed the word “billion.”

Then, I published a post on this blog titled “Thre Magic Words.” Some 159 people viewed the defective headline, though probably only about half of those skimmed the article while roughly a quarter gave up after a few paragraphs and perhaps as many as three noticed that “thre” was misspelled.

Two events — one bringing the world to the brink of financial catastrophe and the other bothering the heck out of me till I corrected it about an hour later — with one thing in common: both involved that bane of written communications, the typo.

Typographical errors go back as far as written history itself. When cultures were passed from one generation to the next through the oral tradition, it was instead the “speak-o” that confounded perfectionists and resulted in some nasty misunderstandings, most notably the ritual sacrifice of humans when all the village elders actually wanted to burn was “cumin.” The advent of cave paintings and hieroglyphs and ultimately movable type allowed such mistakes to be recorded for centuries. (Today we can reprint or “update post” if necessary, but the Neanderthal had to blow up his whole cave if he drew a bear but meant to draw an antelope.)

I’ve been an aficionado of proper spelling my entire life. At Miami Norland Elementary School, I won the fifth-grade spelling bee, advancing to the school-wide finals against a taller, stronger and more athletic sixth-grader who “posterized” me when I stumbled on accrued while he monster-dunked inchoate to take the championship. My two best subjects throughout grade school were spelling and geography, and I was crestfallen to learn from the vocational counselor in high school that you couldn’t enter either subject as a career.

With my dreams dashed of opening a specialty boutique where customers could ask how to spell the capital of North Dakota, I instead went to college to study journalism. It was the early seventies and Florida State was gripped with the revolutionary zeal of the times. However, as much as we questioned the establishment and cultural mores and business-as-usual and why Mary Bess wouldn’t allow me to touch her chest, we never challenged the time-tested rules of written communication. Our manifestos demanding the resignation of the president and ROTC OFF CAMPUS NOW! were carefully edited and exquisitely punctuated.

Only once during my tenure as an editor of the school paper did we dare to question The Man (Noah Webster) on the subject of proper spelling, and that was at the prompting of The Woman. Amy Rogers was head of the local feminist coalition, and came to my office one day demanding that as good liberals we abandon the misogynistic term “woman” in our reporting of campus news.

“We repudiate the word, because it comes from the origin ‘womb-man,’” she told me. “We prefer ‘womyn’ instead, and strongly urge you to prefer it too.”

We convened an editorial meeting and debated for several hours the merits of the request. Ultimately, I moved that the proposal was stupid and got a slim majority (all the guys) to agree with me. Then we closed down the paper and had a sit-in, just for the fun of it.

After leaving college, I took numerous part-time jobs in the closest thing I could find to professional spelling, which was typesetting and proofreading. I was a fast and accurate typist, and to this day can churn out 100 words-per-minute with 98% accuracy (just ask “Typer-Shark”). What I didn’t get right while typing I would correct while checking my work. In 1980 I consolidated the part-time work into one full-time job in financial printing, where I continue to make my career today.

Though my first love is typing – as you can probably tell from this and many other examples of sentences in my posts that run on and on and on – where the company needed me most was in proofreading. That can be a difficult and stressful job, primarily because your entire reason for being is to find and point out the mistakes of others. After identifying the minute deficiencies of other people’s performance all day long, proofreaders typically go home to a lonely existence watching for mistakes in movie credits. Family members fled a long time ago, sick of having every move critiqued. (“Are you sure you meant to say you’re going to the bathroom, dear? Isn’t it really the toilet you intend to use?”).

We’re left to form our own little cult of petty purists, laughing amongst ourselves at how incompetent everyone else is with the language. Remember that time Sue typed an alteration as “bored of directors”? Or when Jackie misread “code of ethics” as “code of ethnics,” and when Bob wrote about the “Antirust Division” in the Justice Department instead of “Antitrust”? And who can ever forget the time we almost printed “annual report” as “anal retort”?

And since our company specializes in helping publically held corporations with their legally required public disclosure documents, it’s that little word “public” that becomes the most problematic of all. We’ve had to catch and fix everything from “pubic announcement” to “certified pubic auditors” to “pubic defender.”

For a long time, such a life was all very satisfying for me. Lately, however, it’s grown a little strained. Sure, we can be justly proud of our high quality standards, helping guarantee the accuracy of information that American shareholders use to help them make wise investment decisions (sort of). But all we’re really responsible for is converting files the client has supplied us and making sure our draft reads exactly like theirs, right or wrong. If we happen to notice that they’ve written “;likjio&%@nehw”, well maybe that’s just the British spelling.

When we split into opposing factions on the subject of which punctuation mark was proper to show a range of numbers, I knew we had gone too far. Those who favored the hyphen with no space on either side (the “Hyphenates”) were pitted against those who felt strongly that an en-dash surrounded by thin spaces (the “Dashers”) was proper. Armed clashes in the parking lot between the two forces were breaking out more frequently now, with at least two proofreaders already injured by sharpened pica sticks. Management has yet to broker a peace.

I think those who care about proper spelling and word usage are being overtaken by larger events anyway. Between emoticons and Twitterese and texting, I think we’ll soon see radical changes to the language in all its forms. Even financial documents, with their stiff, legalistic prose, will soon be created in a new way. For example, the “risk factors” section, which lists in detail potential reasons why a stock may not perform up to its potential, will soon read something like this: “The company operates in a sector in which significant price variations may subject revenue streams to extreme instability (OMG).” Or, “Our acquisition of XYZ Corporation may result in a dilution of our stock price and a reduced market capitalization :( “.

At least it’s pretty hard to typo a frowny face.

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