I recently and randomly began helping proof a weekly newsletter sent out by a writer on substack. He had thrown out a request for proofreading help, and I replied. Two other people did the same, and the writer invited the 3 of us to take a look at his work before he sends it out. Inevitably, we all find different things. Some weeks it’s not been difficult, but other weeks I find myself googling things I’m not sure of myself – like: is he using “eschew” properly? As it turns out, yes.
About the same time, I was reading Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman’s book on, well, books. In it, she includes a chapter on proofreading, where she notes that she can’t help but notice misspellings, misused words, misplaced apostrophes, and all the miscellany of mistakes we find today in print and pixel. As it turns out, she came honestly to her grammatical geekiness: her aging father, when he lost his sight, agonized over how he could still be useful. He struck on an idea: he would spend 12 hours a day with the TV on, “proof-listening” for mistakes – which he would promptly charge the stations $5 per. Alas, he did not pursue this idea, determining – correctly, no doubt – that they simply wouldn’t be interested.
Fadiman’s mother, meanwhile, had a habit of finding mistakes in her local newspaper, clipping them, and saving them up in an envelope. One day, Anne dumped them out, all 394 of them. (Yes, she counted them.) Among the mistakes were hunters shooting dear and readers who shouldn’t be taken for granite – as well as lovers exchanging martial vows.
Which leads me to a typo that I saw over 20 years ago – and that has stuck with me since. It was in a church newsletter, describing how the youth minister had recently injured himself in the marital arts. Not sure I want to know exactly how that happened.
I doubt I would measure up to Fadiman family standards, but my eye, too, is naturally drawn to what’s wrong. At times I smile; at times I grimace. Often, I do both, as with this invitation I received:
Don’t forget to watch this free video about Anxiety with your family!
Well, I don’t think the video is about family-induced anxiety, but that’s certainly one most of us could use!
And I suspect I wasn’t the only one who noticed the church sign whose message was true, while also truly in need of a spellchecker:
God is immeaurable graetness
Or this blurb from an email, sent about a year ago, at the beginning of the pandemic:
In addition to newsletters, check out the Axios Pro Rata Podcast on Spotify tp get smarter….
But how can you blame the writer or the editor of this sentence? At the time it was written, we were all thinking about toilet paper, and how we wish we had been smart enough to get our hands on some extra before it disappeared off the shelves.
Anyway, I have an eye for mistakes, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s helpful, I think, because somebody needs to make sure God’s graetness is spelled right. But it can be distracting, for sure, if the focus is on the word itself, and not the “graeter” truth it’s describing. If I’m not vigilant, having an eye for what’s wrong can lead to that becoming the first and only thing I notice. Seeing what is wrong can become a way of life.
For sure, there will never be a shortage of mistakes, typos, and split infinitives catching my attention, just as there will never be a shortage of mistakes and mess-ups in the lives of people – including me! To see things that need correcting is important – but only when I first see the log in my own eye, and the beauty – and graetness – all around me that I dare not overlook.