Over the years, I’ve joked that I need a t-shirt that reads, “I hate typogorphical errors!” The typo, as it is usually called, is the bane of writers. editors, and publishers everywhere, a stealthy creature that slinks into even the most carefully-checked works, causing pain, frustration, and mild terror. Consider the following egregious example I recently tripped over:
This excellent agreement convinced many scientists that the meteoroid dinosaur extinction theory first put forward by Alvarez and collaborators was correct. The ejecta fell exactly on the paleontological boundary, confirming that the impact occurred at the
However, the initial dating of both the crater and the iridium layer . . .
(Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, by Lisa Randall, p216)
And this in a work published by HarperCollins! I’m sure there were a few slapped foreheads when it was discovered. I had to show it to my wife, just so she wouldn’t feel so bad about the typos that have showed up in the books she’s edited.
The term “typographical error” originally referred to typesetting errors at the print shop, not errors that occurred in the writing or editing process. Most often, typos involved transposed letters or simply wrong letters. Later, with the advent of the typewriter, the term expanded to include miskeyed letters. (One that I’m constantly committing these days is the reversal of “i” and “o” in words ending in “ion.” Like statoin . . . err . . . station. I never used to do that. I don’t know why my fingers have picked up that particular quirk.)
In more recent times, with the computerization of just about everything in publishing, a typo can be letters miskeyed during writing or editing, errors that occur as a result of accepting changes entered by either the writer or the editor, or errors that occur during electronic typesetting and layout. The example shown above, in which the entire tail end of a sentence went AWOL, is most likely one of the latter.
Many people, myself included, have a sense that typos are becoming more common in published works. Indeed, it’s probably safe to say that those typos that mangle or eat entire sentences are a fairly modern invention. Although such things may have happened in the days of manual typesetting, they probably were rare. Today, not so much. So why does it happen now? The usual explanation is laziness. Writers and editors used to be a lot more careful and care a lot more about their product.
But I’m not so sure that’s true. The upswing in self-publishing certainly has resulted in a flood of unedited or under-edited works on the market, but that doesn’t explain missing sentences in works written by established authors and published by major publishing houses. Having sat in the publisher’s chair, having worked closely with my editor-wife both as a publisher and as a writer, I’ve gained some perspective on the matter. It seems to me there are three issues:
- Complexity. Publishing today involves computers from end to end. The author writes on a computer. The editor edits on a computer. Electronic document revisions are shuffled back and forth between author and editor. The edited manuscript is imported into publishing software, where typography and layout are handled not by the printer but by the publisher. The manuscript may be broken into a set of files by chapter, and those files collected into an ordered sequence. From this, proofs are generated (typically in PDF format) and sent to the printer. The printer may fiddle with the PDFs in some cases, but in a twist of historical and linguistic irony, printers don’t normally introduce typos today. The typos are already there by the time they get their hands on the production proofs. Ideally, at each step of the way the output is being inspected by the writer and the editor, but enter the next problem.
- Overburdened human resources. Workers are under pressure to do more work faster than ever. Reviewing an entire book in detail is time consuming and not a bit mind numbing, especially given that both author and editor have likely read the book several times each by the time production proofs are ready. Even authors get sick of their own books at that point! Moving quickly because they have to, numbed by repetition, and using processes prone to introducing new typos even as they fix old ones, maybe they spot all the errors and maybe they don’t. It’s not laziness, nor is it sloppiness per se. It’s just not easy, under these conditions, to eradicate every last error.
- Typos are stealthy. I don’t know how else to put it. We’ve had the experience of training three sets of eyeballs on a proof, only to miss a few typos. You’d think that at least one out of three reviewers would spot any given error. But no. They sneak through anyway. How do they do that?
We all–writers, editors, publishers–hate typogorphical, er, typographical errors. Most of us, I’m sure, do our best to keep them at bay. Alas, it’s a constant battle, made no easier by the modern tools of the trade and the demands of the business. And when they happen, we have little option but to sigh, cringe, wince, or maybe just laugh . . . and fix them in the next edition.
Without, we hope, introducing new ones!
Header image courtesy http://ffffound.com.