If there’s one thing that gets grammar snobs going, aside from serial commas and apostrophe abuse, it’s sloppy proofreading or errors, especially in publications that are supposed to have been professionally copy edited. When I see a typo, though, unless the piece is riddled with errors, I try to give the author the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it’s not sloppiness. Maybe it’s just being human.
When I was in my twenties, I worked for a federal agency in a unit that responded to correspondence from the public on behalf of the director of the agency. I won’t say what agency it was, but suffice it to say that its mission was (and is) to catch bad guys.
As a pool typist (yes, we had typing pools back in the dark ages of office technology), I would pull the original correspondence from a box, then hook up to a remote transcription system where I’d grab the response dictated by one of the staff letter writers. I’d type away, print out the response, clip it to the original correspondence, and return it to the letter writer for proofing.
Now, most of those letters were signed by a machine. I know, I know…disappointing, but true. (It was cool to watch the machine, though, I must say.) Some of them, however, actually went all the way up to the director’s office for his real, live signature. In those cases, the letter would get extra layers of proofreading. Yes, layers.
Those letters would go from me, to the letter writer, to his or her supervisor, and so on up the chain until they arrived at the desk of the director’s executive secretary, a terrifyingly efficient woman in her mid-fifties whose mere name still makes me quake in fear. I’ll call her Miss Jones for purposes of this story. (For the record, Miss Jones was not married but was not a fan of the whole “Ms.” salutation.) She was never nasty or unprofessional to me in any way, but I was young and stupid, and my guess is that most of my fear was self-manufactured. Still, it was real. So every time one of my letters had to make that journey up to her desk, I would fret and worry until I knew it passed muster and founds it way back down to our little unit, all signed and ready for the mail.
And that’s what usually happened. Usually.
I’ll never forget the one day, though, that it didn’t. It was a short letter, taking up probably about half to two-thirds of the sheet of letterhead. Because it was so short, compared to some of the tomes we shipped out of that office, I didn’t worry too much about mistakes. I mean, I had read and re-read that sucker, using a piece of cardboard under each line to train my eyes on that row (a system I still use), probably ten times before passing it off to the letter writer. I was fairly confident it was error-free. So when the call came, from none other than Miss Jones herself, it was like I’d been smacked in the gut with one of Babe Ruth’s home runs. I think I almost blacked out with panic.
I remember rushing up to the director’s suite, where decisions impacting the world were made, sweat pooling in my arm pits and running down my face, to face her and the consequences of what I’d done.
She didn’t speak when I entered her realm and approached her desk, just pointed with a surprisingly pretty pink-tipped finger to my horrific offense. Under the director’s name, I had typed his title: Direceor.
Did you see it??? You must have. How could you not? I mean, how could I, and all those layers of proofreading professionals, have missed that I replaced the letter “t” with the letter “e,” in THE MAN’S TITLE OF ALL PLACES!?
I suppose I could have comforted myself with the fact that I’d managed to type his name correctly, but I didn’t. I stammered a slew of apologies while she glared, then I crawled back to my desk, made the change with fingers that didn’t stop trembling for the rest of the day, and printed out the freshly corrected letter. I can’t remember if I walked the new version up to her, or if that was left to one of my managers, but I do remember that that letter got me a big, fat check mark in my list of errors come performance review time.
To be fair, I think I might be remembering this episode with a bit more drama than actually occurred, but I’ll never forget the lessons I learned that day:
(1) You never catch your own errors; and
(2) sometimes other people don’t either.
So when I see a typo in a newspaper or article, or even a book, I don’t rant and throw my hands in the air and call the poor author a schmuck for not picking it up like some do. I think back to Miss Jones, and the agency’s “direceor,” and say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”