Why can't Johnny read? Typos are our semi-literate way of life

January 12, 1993|By Orlando Sentinel

The sign above a Sanford, Fla., shop is as imposing as it is flawed: "MAL'S UPHOSTERY." Find the missing L.

"I've never even noticed that," said owner Curt Malcolm.

Puzzling newspaper ad: "Expert wanted. Someone to help put down a shallow whale." Better call animal control.

Strange instructions for a pocket watch: "In notmal time, hold S3-Button about three seconds. Monday flag (plus symbol) Hour digits will flash which is advance through depression of S2-Button."

We are a nation brimming with typographical errors, dropped words and mangled syntax.

Novels, menus, handwritten signs, ads -- read many of them carefully and there's a good chance an error will rear its inky head.

"It's pitiful," said Scott Greenwood, sales manager for the sign division of United Trophy in Orlando, Fla.

Mr. Greenwood reviews all signs that leave his business, and he can't help but notice the errors of others.

"The problem seems to be time," Mr. Greenwood said. "You get so rushed. Before you know it, the thing's due, and you have to shove it out."

John DiPito's New York firm, Proofreaders Affinity, trains and places professional proofreaders for a variety of businesses. Mr. DiPito notes an epidemic of typos.

"From ad copy to financial statements to New York Times editorials, it's unbelievable," he said. "A lot of executives, lawyers -- they can't write worth a bean. That's why they need a secretary to proofread their work."

Mr. DiPito called Madison Avenue one of the worst offenders. "I've had ad agencies tell me, 'You don't have to send over an excellent proofreader.' "

Mr. DiPito doesn't understand that attitude: "Whom are we dealing with, after all? It's nothing really important -- it's only the American public, for God's sake."

The sign in an Orlando barbecue restaurant informs patrons that "Smoking is premitted."

The sign outside a subdivision says "Invenory close out." Educators, presumably the wardens of linguistic accuracy, are hardly exempt.

A Seminole (Fla.) Community College class schedule advises tennis students: "Bring your won racket."

It offers this tortured description of a personal development class: "Build your self-esteem, fine tune your assertiveness skills or gain awareness career transitions and of divorce and separation."

A Memphis State alumni newsletter updates former students on "faulty" advisers.

Maybe it is hypocritical for a news story to dwell on typos. After all, newspapers are full of them.

An Orlando Sentinel article, for example, speaks of "painful truths that are almost always left unspokspoken." Not to mention unproofread.

Mr. DiPito said computers may be partly to blame for this epidemic, with college students learning to depend on the automatic spelling checks in their word processors.

"It's just like using a calculator," he said. "You learn to press a button. But you don't know how to do the math."

Even simple slips can prove troublesome.

* In Miami, a man charged with threatening his girlfriend with a gun was acquitted, not for lack of evidence, but because official paperwork had the wrong name of the suspect.

* Typos in the bank fraud indictment of Tennessee financiers Jake Butcher and Earl Wilson forced the court to hold two arraignments on the same charges.

* More than 100,000 telephone books in South Florida were printed that indicated that a Hollywood law firm provided abortion rather than adoption services. It took an undisclosed settlement to soothe bad feelings.

* A Leesburg, Fla., doughnut shop was awarded $3,500 over a newspaper ad that advertised doughnuts for 1 cent rather than 19 cents. Customers ordered 12,500 of them, five waitresses quit and the quality of the doughnuts deteriorated.

Typically, the highest cost is in embarrassment. The U.S. Census blamed a typographical error for the counting of seven residents in a cemetery in Grand Rapids, Mich.

If typos have one saving grace, it is that they contributed to technology.

Liquid Paper was conceived by a secretary self-conscious about her mistakes.

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