Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Derek Zoolander Center for People Who Can't Spel Gud

During a recent visit to a hospital to cover a story, I spotted a suggestion box labeled "CHAPLIN REQUESTS." (Yes, I resisted the temptation to ask if they had any mustachioed silent-film stars handy for my amusement while I waited.)

In fact, I didn't say anything. The instant calculation in my head was that 1) it was not misleading as far as its intended purpose, 2) most people won't even realize it's misspelled, and 3) it's kind of funny.

If your brain is wired for language, you can't help but notice spelling and grammar abuse at every turn. Makes you feel superior, eh? The question, then, is whether to say anything when you do--hence the "instant calculation" I performed in my head. For me, the inputs include:
  • the seriousness of the error (lethal, misleading or just silly?)
  • the location it appears in (high traffic or inconsequential?)
  • the cost that it would take to fix it (signage, printed material or website?)
  • my relationship with the responsible party (client, vendor or someone who would likely think I was a know-it-all smartaleck?)
My longtime proofreader Bonnie Trenga has a section at her Sentence Sleuth blog for people to add their own "criminal sentences." She secured my business back in the mid-'90s by marking up a magazine that I edited and asking if we could use her services. A risky tactic, but it worked.


  1. Occasionally I have sent people notification that a web site has a mistake or something, but never got any business out of it.

  2. @Anon, I think that falls under the last bullet. If you don't have a relationship, you risk being seen as a crank.

    Bonnie was strategic and thoughtful about how she approached it: Marked-up story, nice cover letter explaining how she could help. I am sure that some editors would be offended at an outsider pointing out their mistakes, but I looked at it as an opportunity to improve our product.

  3. I love comical misspellings. I worked for someone who consistently typed "sacred" instead of "scared" and once finished a newsletter article with the classic, "Now I'm sacred." I had a great mental image of him in a temple...

    Helpfully pointing out errors is a gift, I'm convinced. One I don't seem to have. I recently caught a mistake on a business card ("review" instead of "revue") and by pointing it out nicely, saved the guy from investing in a misspelled sign. Instead he scoffed and said it didn't matter. I'm sure he was just saving face but I do hesitate before pointing out such mistakes. Your checklist is smart.

  4. This is a HUGE pet peeve of mine. A locally produced TV commercial for a law firm featured a misspelled word. I finally picked up the phone and spoke to the lady lawyer who was in the ad. "I believe you meant to spell workers compensation, not workers compenSTATION" She flustered some sort of excuse and practically hung up on me. The key was finally fixed, but it took her at least a month to do so. She must have been too busy chasing ambulances to care!

  5. @Valerie, "it doesn't matter" is simply a priceless response. And as far as scared v. sacred, that's why I am drilling into my kids to NEVER TRUST SPELLCHECK.

    @adchick, you're lucky Mrs. Ambulance Chaser didn't sue you for harrassment, defamation or something :)