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Typo Tales

by Marcia Yudkin

Typos are trivial matters, right?  Not really.

Because of the placement of a certain comma, regulators with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ruled that Rogers Communications owed Aliant corporation around $2.13 million more than it expected.  To the regulators, the comma clearly indicated that an "unless" contingency applied to one part of the sentence only and not to two parts of the sentence, as the losing party in this matter assumed. 

It really is useful to know the rules of grammar!  Read the whole story.

BBC News quotes an ecommerce company president who says that his company has seen revenues double after they have corrected a spelling mistake on a sales page.  Read the story.

And in 1631, English royal printers Robert Barker and Martin Lucas reproduced the 783,137 words of the King James Bible with only one typo.  For this achievement, they had their business license yanked and had to pay a fine of £300 (equivalent to about $50,000 today).  Why?  They printed the seventh commandment as "Thou shalt commit adultery."  Only 11 copies of the so-called Wicked Bible survive today.  Most were burned.

The following pieces appeared in Marcia Yudkin's weekly email newsletter, The Marketing Minute.  Subscribe to it, free, now.  Copyright 2004-2013 Marcia Yudkin.  All rights reserved.

Misprint Disaster

Overzealous proofreading can create catastrophe, as can poor proofreading or none at all.

Mail-order sporting goods giant L.L. Bean barely averted disaster last week when its back-to-school catalog arrived in millions of homes. The catalog invited people to call a phone number that belonged to a Virginia company instead of the Maine-based mega-retailer. L.L. Bean paid the Virginia company an unnamed sum of money (surely six figures!) to immediately take over the misprinted phone number.

The misprint's cause: an employee who "knew" a toll-free number starting with "877" should really have started with "800."

The remedy: don't assume anything. You could be wrong! Somehow that employee hadn't heard that toll-free numbers now may begin with "877" and not only "800." I've seen this sort of mis-correction again and again with proper names. A business author I admire often gets listed in bibliographies as "Murray Raphael." True, "Raphael" is more logical than "Raphel," but it's wrong.

Before you correct, check! With a phone number, that's especially easy. Just reach for your keypad and punch it in.

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More Misprint Mischief

"To be or to be."  That's how one of the most famous sentences in the English language began several years ago in a new edition of Shakespeare's "Hamlet."  Six professional proofreaders failed to catch the mistake, which received national publicity and gave the publishing company a red face.  

Similarly, the Wall Street Journal once devoted eight column inches to ridiculing a conference on critical thinking that sent out a press release referring to the conference's "world renown" researchers "in field of thinking" such as our former surgeon general "C. Everett Coop."  (He spells it "Koop.")

Not convinced that misspellings make a difference?  In Wellesley, Massachusetts, a man handed a bank teller a note that read:  "Give me your 10s and 20s and no die pack."  Distracted by the misspelling of "die" for "dye," the teller had to reread the note to realize that this was an attempted stickup.  Indignant, she crumpled up the note and told the guy, "I'm not giving you any money.  Now get the hell out of here."  He obeyed, his message having failed to get across.

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A Typo Non-Disaster

Being misidentified by the media is disastrous, right?  Not to Janice Hoffman.

A reporter from Investorís Business Daily once interviewed her for an article on office organizing.  Hoffman was pleased to find the article on IVBís front page, but annoyed to read that her company, Before & After, is located in Waterville, Massachusetts.

There is no such town.

Hoffman made numerous calls to the paper, working her way along to the senior editor, who apologized and agreed to run a correction.  The next day, Hoffman received a call from a producer at Bostonís Channel 4 who hadnít read the original article but saw the correction:  "Janice Hoffman, Professional Organizer, is located in Watertown, Massachusetts."

"That, it turns out, was all that was needed to begin a beautiful, mutually beneficial relationship," Hoffman says.  "I was on Channel 4 twice last summer, once for a report on yard sales and how to do them well, and the other a Before and After of my work with a client over the period of a month.

"That was definitely my favorite typo, ever," she notes.

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The Cost of Carelessness

Occasionally I encounter marketers who insist spelling or typos don't matter. "No one really cares," their argument goes. "It humanizes the copy, and besides, everyone knows what we mean."

Oh, really?

  • In 2004, Judge Jacob P. Hart of Philadelphia slashed the fee due an attorney in half because of overabundant typos. The lawyer lost $31,350.

  • In Britain, DDS Media had to destroy 10,000 spelling game DVDs whose cover misspelled TV anchor Eamonn Holmes' name.

  • A Wisconsin-based editor paid an executive recruiter $1,720 to spruce up her resume and send it to 200 potential employers, only to learn that the resumes went out containing a section of gibberish. The editor sued the headhunter for more than $75,000.

  • In 2005, a trader on the Tokyo stock exchange intended to trade 1 share at 610,000 yen, but instead placed an order for 610,000 shares at 1 yen each. The firm's loss: around $18.7 million.

  • A spell-check service whose motto is "no more embarrassing errors" itself uses "then" where "than" is correct. Will potential clients really laugh this off?

The High Stakes of Typos

When your typos make the news, you can look not only careless but also wasteful.

In late March 2008, Arkansas governor Mike Beebe called the state assembly into special session partly to deal with a typo in a 2007 law that had mistakenly allowed girls of any age (even infants) to marry with their parents' consent. A special session costs taxpayers about $25,000 a day.

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Around the same time, a candidate for a Congressional seat in West Virginia discovered that the Secretary of State's office had misspelled her name on the ballots. According to state law, the error must be corrected at taxpayers' expense - costing $100,000 - $125,000.

Is one answer to such flubs using the "auto-correct" function in Microsoft Word? Definitely not. In the May issue of Writer's Digest, E.S. Gaffney says that when she worked for a Department of Energy laboratory, she submitted a proposal to someone with the last name Prono. The spell-checker automatically changed poor Mr. Prono's name to... you guessed it. Gaffney didn't notice the mistaken correction and the proposal failed.

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