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Humans have been making blunders in writing ever since they first put chisel to stone or pigment to papyrus. And I mean all humans – even professional writers and editors. The difference nowadays is that their typos can be seen around the world within nanoseconds of their creation.

So if everyone does it, can’t we just accept it? If you correct a friend’s typo on social media, the response might be, “Yeah, but you know what I meant.” (That’s if you have polite friends.) But what if your writing is more public than a tweet or an email?

I’ve come to the conclusion that many writers of websites, adverts, leaflets, newsletters etc do the same bit of mathematical reasoning before they publish. It goes like this:

“If I’ve made any mistakes, the readers will fall into one of three groups.

  1. They won’t notice.
  2. They’ll notice, but they’ll know what I meant.
  3. They’ll notice, and they won’t know what I meant.

Hey! That means I’ve got a 2:3 chance of my mistakes not mattering much. Great odds! Publish and be damned.”

Let’s not dwell on Group 3. Suffice it to say that it isn’t desirable for readers not to understand what you’ve written. No; I want to focus on Group 2 – the ones who know what you meant, really. The chances are it’s the biggest group of the three.

“Even better odds, then!” you might think. Not so, and here’s why.

Driving readers to distraction

The very act of noticing typos distracts readers from the main message. If eyes and brain have latched onto that amusing spelling mistake (although typos encompass far more than errors in spelling or punctuation), then they’re less focused on your sales pitch or your persuasive argument.

A recent true experience illustrates the point.

Near our home is an old farm with a newly completed barn conversion. Off we went, husband and I, to have a nose at it (it’s a tad outside our price bracket, but still…). The farmstead bore a battered old wooden name board saying Hopkins Farm. A few yards further on was the sweeping new entrance to the conversion. And there, a sparkling granite sign announced: Hopkin’s Barn*.

Now, I can feel the consternation of my fellow wordsmiths from here. A conundrum presents itself; it just isn’t possible for both those signs to be right.

There followed an impassioned monologue from me about the placement of possessive apostrophes, thoughtless home owners, and the probable origins of the family name.

Meanwhile, a million pounds’ worth of architectural splendour stood behind me being ignored.

It doesn’t matter who was right in this case. It was an anomaly, and it drew my attention away from what should have been more important. On screen or on paper, the cumulative effect of several little errors and inconsistencies is incalculable.

Well, almost. By my calculation, there’s at least a 2:3 chance that it does matter, whether people know what you meant or not. Add in the readers who get the impression that you just don’t care, multiply by the number of lines on the page and…

I’m sure you know the answer. Get your writing checked, and the odds will always be in your favour.

*Name slightly changed to protect the guilty, but the essence of the example remains.

Catherine Kendal

Catherine Kendal is a proofreader and editor who likes nothing more than sorting the good from the bad and the ugly. She takes the description 'pernickety' as a compliment. Visit Catherine's website