The Typo Slayer

The Typo Slayer

My first typo trauma came when I was a teenaged summer clerk-typist for the public information office of the state mental health department. Ever since I’d learned to read, I’d been hooked on print. Typing and proofing press releases about the commissioner’s latest visit to a state hospital wasn’t glamorous, but it was a good beginning.

Or it was, until the day I heard a deep, German-inflected voice yelling in the hallway as its bearer neared our small office, “Who proofed this brochure!?” The psychiatrist who edited the state’s professional journal strode in and slammed a small leaflet on my desk. Fifty thousand copies had just been delivered, and he, who had perfunctorily signed off on the proofs, was incensed. The word “school” appeared where “social” should have been. “Mentally retarded children don’t have school histories,” he said grimly. “They have social histories.”

Rule No. 1 of typo slaying: It’s the ones that are not misspellings that will always get you.

Rule No. 2: No matter how many people look at the text or what level of expertise they have, there will be mistakes.

Rule No. 3: Don’t blame junior staff for your oversights.

Other lessons followed. During my stint in a Brooklyn commune, I red-penciled a shopping list pinned to the refrigerator. How could someone with three years of graduate school have written sause? Outraged, the offender protested, “I went to a progressive school. Spelling wasn’t that important.” Gee, if progressive politics had kept pace with the inability to spell, we’d be living in a very different country.

Rule No. 4: Few people care as much as you do. The corollary is that you can lose friends and alienate people by overdoing it. Choose your battles.

Once I landed on the Left, the terrain got trickier. When I worked for the newsletter of what is now Democratic Socialists of America, I found myself in the typesetting shop of a right-wing social democrat. This incredibly patient, but mercilessly polemical craftsman delighted in inserting non sequiturs in the political copy of his adversaries. My comrades told me the perhaps apocryphal story that when Irving Howe edited Labor Action, Irving had missed one of these bons mots, which made it into print. Supposedly, they never spoke again. The day I found he had inserted a subhead in an article by Michael Harrington that said “Tilting at Windmills,” I felt a thrill.

I would not let this guy get me.

His shop still used hot type, even as cold type swamped the industry. All typos were costly and time-consuming. And the old printing adage that for every correction there would be another mistake proved true. A few more rules clicked into place.

Rule No. 5: Eternal vigilance is the price of clarity.

Rule No. 6: Attempts ...

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