Technology and Typos

By Mark Nichol

Just a week after a typographical error in campaign materials for Mitt Romney prompted newspaper headlines, more spelling mistakes by the Romney campaign and the Obama administration alike made the news.

A misspelling of America in Romney’s iPhone “With Mitt” app was followed by a reference to Ronald Reagan spelled “Ronald Regan” in a slide show at a donor event, a misspelling in a video of “sneak-peak” instead of “sneak-peek” (tsk! — nobody pointed out that in addition, the hyphen is extraneous), and an invitation to buy “offical” campaign gear. (The latter two errors appeared on Romney’s Facebook page.)

The Obama administration has a few red check marks on its assignments, too: Last year, the White House’s Twitter account misspelled Libya, and Obama himself was seen misspelling Syracuse. He was also called out for a couple of mistakes in the spelling of the names of historical figures in his 1995 memoir.

What is the world coming to?

In the vicious world of politics, these flubs have provided hooks to hang vitriol on. The misspelling by Romney’s staff of America and Reagan, two key words in Republican ideology, and the other mistakes associated with his campaign have been exploited to attack his suitability for higher office — a specious argument, regardless of what you may think about just that. The same goes for Obama, though he is directly responsible for the mistakes in his book.

But these errors do provide valuable lessons for everyone. Most important, just as evolution does not mean “improvement” (the basic definition is “change”), progress does not mean “things get better.” And a corollary point is this: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

How did these errors happen? Because it was easy for them to happen. I wasn’t at the scene of any of these misdemeanor crimes against the English language, but my guess is that in the case of the Romney campaign’s typos, and the Obama administration’s misspelling of Libya, a single person was involved: Tap on a few keys, click a couple of buttons, and presto! — the app is launched, the video text is entered, the website copy is live.

In the past, political campaigns, like other organizations, took a more measured approach to getting the words out: Drafts were circulated, revised, vetted. Errors occurred, but seldom, because the process rendered the environment hostile to mistakes. Now, however, technology allows one person to have control over dissemination (and sensible people will realize that even if multiple pairs of eyeballs were involved in any of these boo-boos, none of those sensory organs belonged to Romney or Obama himself).

Why is it any different now? Why are decision makers so careless in assuming that just because a procedure can be simplified, the protocol for effecting the outcome of the procedure can be minimized as well? Because easier translates to faster and cheaper. But what about quality?

You’ll notice nobody defended these errors by saying, “You know what we meant by Amercia” or “Everybody knows who ‘Ronald Regan’ refers to” or “The Libyans spell their country’s name al-Lībiyyah, so go figure.” Nor were any announcements made about any heads rolling as a result of the mistakes.

We shouldn’t shrug these errors off, however. There are more pressing issues in politics than an apparent aversion to spell-checking, but clear communication is compromised when the ease of use of technology enables carelessness. These mistakes are symptoms of a decline in quality control in our written language and an attendant apathy about the issue. And when impressionable younger people, already inured to the attraction of text-speak, see that our society is blasé and blithe about how sequences of alphabetical characters are displayed (spelling errors are already ubiquitous, whether on billboards or chalkboards), they receive a subliminal message that precision and perfection are not worthy (if ultimately unattainable) goals.

I don’t mean to come across as an alarmist reactionary. Again, we’ve got more important things to take care of. But in the meantime, we shouldn’t let the little things slip away unheeded. And I’ve admitted making errors myself. But as we use our handy little keyboards and keypads, let’s all be more careful out there.

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17 Responses to “Technology and Typos”

  • Oliver Lawrence

    If you’re careless with your use of language, people naturally start to wonder what else you’re going to be careless with. That’s rather important if you’re running for high office. It’s well-known that sales suffer when a company’s website contains language errors; presumably, the same is true for politics.

  • John McDuffie

    Always proofread to make sure no words out.

  • Niall

    Okay, I’ve looked at it five times now and I can only assume that you misspelled the misspelling…

    of “sneak-peek” instead of “sneak-peek”

    Now, that’s funny! 😀

  • CJ

    Mark, your penultimate paragraph concisely captures the reason why I read your articles every day. If we no longer care about the quality of our writing, or even its basic technical correctness, then we send the message that ‘good enough is good enough’. Avoiding mistakes does not take a lot of effort, it just takes the desire to do it and the recognition that there is always an opportunity to improve.

  • AB

    “sneak-peak” / “sneak-peak” — Oh the wonderful irony. Even the experts aren’t free from the occasional solecism. Bravo!

    Lesson learned? Make sure you’re writing is seen by another set of eyes before turning it in.

  • dave

    ‘…they receive a subliminal message that precision and perfection are not worthy (if ultimately unattainable) goals.’

    I agree entirely! This is such a difficult message to put across though, without earning the title ‘Grammar Nazi’.

  • Susan

    Yeah, this lost me at the second paragraph when you did the same thing.

  • Vidal

    This is a fundamental error, and no excuse can be made for Mr. Romney.

    Not even “Obama did it too”

    A campaign for the Office of the President of the United States of America … misspells America or Ronald Reagan?. That makes no sense.

    Next Donald Trump will claim that Romney was not born in the US since he misspelt America.

    I agree with Oliver Lawrence above … “If you’re careless with your use of language, people naturally start to wonder what else you’re going to be careless with.”

  • R. E. Hunter

    ‘Because easier translates to faster and cheaper. But what about quality?’

    As the old engineering saying says: faster, better, cheaper – pick any two (you can’t have all three, one has to give).

  • Mark Nichol

    My misspelling of the misspelling of “sneak peek” has been corrected.

  • leslie (crookedstamper)

    What CJ said.

    And AB, “Make sure you’re writing is seen by …” ? tsk tsk. 🙂 After the peek/peak incident, I’m loving the comments.

  • Dave Rissik

    Of course this is why MS Word has a spell check feature – not infallible but a great help.

  • Sally

    The spell-checker will not tell the grammatically challenged person which of the three forms, ‘there,’ ‘their’ or ‘they’re,’ is correct unless said individual also sets it to check grammar — and sometimes not even then!

    But Mark’s point is valid for oral communication too. Radio and TV stations hate ‘dead air time’* in interviews, while both public figures and ordinary people are often ambushed with a microphone and/or camera and badgered for immediate comments – their spontaneous reactions, unthought-out, often inappropriate and sometimes downright silly, can be presented as ‘policy’ or ‘sincerely held belief’ and then savaged by their adversaries.

    Those who refuse to participate in such shenanigans are usually presented unsympathetically – politicians are judged to be ‘unelectable’ while others are dismissed as ‘devious,’ ‘untrustworthy’ and “not one of us ordinary folks.”

    *Commercial Radio/TV also hates any idea that is more complicated than can be presented between two ad breaks and tabloid newspapers are similarly simplistic.

  • Curtis

    The spell-check function of OpenOffice doesn’t always work. Sometimes I can drop a space between words separated by a comma (example: this,and that) and it fails to catch the mistake.

    Proofread relentlessly — and then get someone else to do it again.

  • Karen

    It isn’t cost that drives people to skip proofreading and editing — most often, it’s the drive for speed. With instant access comes the demand for more speed, and streamlined procedures, and that often means skipping steps. And that’s where the mistakes creep in.

    Sally’s comment about public figures being “ambushed” by microphones is valid, too, and unfortunately the media likes to use its power to smear those it doesn’t favor. Typos shouldn’t be political, but they are. We all like to feel smugly superior when we find someone else’s mistake, but taking it to the level of national policy is ridiculous. Is it important? Yes. Is it life-threatening? Probably not. I’d worry more about typos in prescriptions and medical procedures than in political campaigns or statements.

  • Stephen Thorn

    Fortunately, the errors listed from both the Obama and Romney camps weren’t going to get anyone killed, and I understand how a flunky is the actual button-pusher who made the gaffes, so I can shake my head in sadness and move on.

    It still tends to grate on my nerves when I am reading a book, magazine, newspaper, etc. — something I paid good money for — and find an amateurish flub that should never have made it past the author’s inner failsafes, their word processing software’s checking function, the editor, proofreader, type setter, ad nauseum. Doggone it, I PAID for this thing and it’s inferior? Yeah, it bugs me. It also puts the thought in the back of my mind that ‘this guy’s a hack with a fancy office’ and breaks the trust I’ve placed in the writer to entertain or inform me. Like watching a horror movie and catching a glimpse of the zipper up the monster’s back or seeing the camera crew reflected in a shiny surface, suddenly the magic is gone and the writer must now work twice as hard to win me back.

    The upside of the preceeding paragraph is how superior I feel when I see that some best-seller has errors I’d never have made. Everbody knows I never make misteaks in MY righting.

  • Lena

    To err is Human. That’s the excuse 😀

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