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A Word, Please: Why is it so difficult to catch our own errors?

Truman Capote edits Joanne Carson’s manuscript

Truman Capote heavily edited the manuscript of Joanne Carson, Johnny Carson’s second wife.

(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

When Santa makes a list, he checks it twice.

I think I know why. Any guy whose name transposes to Satan has surely been burned by typos before.

To catch all the mistakes in a piece of writing, a single read just won’t do. That’s one of the first things we teach in copy editing class: Two passes at a document are the absolute minimum. And that’s just for the copy editor, whose work eventually will be checked by a proofreader.

Almost every day I wince at typos I missed during a first pass of some document I’m editing. Just days ago on a first read, I breezed right past two references to “viscous rumors.”

Partly because I always read stuff twice (at least), I’m good at my job. But my talents for spotting other writers’ boo-boos goes out the window when I proofread my own work. To say I’m terrible at catching my own mistakes is a colossal understatement. I’ve overlooked misspellings of my own name. My first name.

One helpful strategy is to set aside a piece of writing and look it over later, which I usually do with this column. “Fresh eyes” catch a lot of incriminating errors. But never enough, as evidenced by how a few months ago, I reported in this space that the word “is” is a vowel. (I meant verb.)

There’s a term for this: “Muphry’s Law is an adage that states: ‘If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written,’” according to Wikipedia.

And yes, Muphry is a deliberate misspelling of Murphy.

Fun stuff, but it doesn’t explain why I overlook so many of the typos I make when I’m not criticizing others’ errors (which I try to avoid doing anyway). No matter the subject or the message, my writing often contains errors I can’t catch. All my skill for spotting others’ mistakes goes AWOL. In my entire life, I doubt I’ve ever sent out a resume for an editing job that didn’t contain at least one editing error.

I’ve long suspected that this happens because the human brain approaches the tasks of writing and reading differently. Writing is information output. Reading is taking in information. Two very different jobs. So when it’s your own writing, you can’t fully shift into receiving mode because it’s still you trying to communicate something.

A 2014 Wired magazine article titled “Why It’s So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos” offered a more scientific (and comforting) analysis: “The reason typos get through isn’t because we’re stupid or careless, it’s because what we’re doing is actually very smart.”

According to psychologist Tom Stafford, quoted in the Wired piece, conveying meaning is a “high-level task” for the brain. When our brains perform high-level tasks, they generalize simpler tasks like spelling.

“When we’re reading other peoples’ work, this helps us arrive at meaning faster by using less brain power,” the article states. “When we’re proofreading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. The reason we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads.”

That’s great news for me, not just because it’s a face-saving excuse for my own myriad errors but also because the writer used these words: other peoples’ work. That should be people’s, singular possessive, because he meant the work of other people and not the work of other peoples.

It’s a typo that neither the writer nor his editors caught — but I did. And considering all the humiliation typos have caused me over the years, this tiny victory is like a little Christmas present. Thanks, Satan!

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JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.


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