In Defense Of Typos

The Internet is a landscape filled with—some would say plagued by—typographical errors. But how much should we really worry about a misplaced apostrophe or a mistyped word?

Top image by Jeremy Keith.

Responding to the tut-tutting grammar tweet recently tweeted by actual Nazis, Author John Higgs defends the value of typos in an essay at usvsth3m, arguing that our obsession with perfectly typed prose can run counter to the handcrafted, human aspect of what we're writing:

There is widespread belief that doing things correctly is important, because that is what leads to success. You can see this in talent shows such as The X Factor. Kids with real talent apply themselves, doing whatever it is that the judges consider valid, and after a lot of work they produce a perfect performance in which they have done everything right. And then they are forgotten the moment that the TV is switched off, because ultimately that's not what music is about.

The obsession with doing things right leads to the belief that perfection is enough - that perfection is valid in itself. That's not the case. Professionalism can be the icing on the cake, but first you need a cake. There are limits to the amount of mistakes we can handle, of course, and obviously mistakes which alter the meaning of the work need to be fixed. But that does not mean we should aim for the extreme of a zero-tolerance policy to mistakes. The belief that the world is a sensible, rational and ordered place is known as the aneristic delusion, and that's not the sort of nonsense that we want our language to promote.

It's an interesting argument, one I've seen applied to handmade crafts more than writing. Higgs' other point, which is a bit more familiar, is that the obsession with perfection in writing reinforces a linguistic elitism, where only people who strictly adhere to certain grammar and punctuation rules are taken seriously.

While there is something to be said for readers forgiving the occasional mistake (I say as a person who writes things hastily on the Internet), I'm not sure Higgs makes a convincing argument that writers should leave genuinely accidental errors be, especially when there's an edit button handy. On the one hand, we shouldn't miss the forest for the trees and ignore a passionate piece of writing because the author dropped a word or screwed up a pronoun. On the other, making mistakes isn't the same thing as ignoring them.

Then again, Higgs seems primarily interested in encouraging people to send their writing out into the world without obsessing over every detail. While there are cases where we want our writers to be obsessive (especially when a typo might be disastrous), freeing ourselves from typo worry may have its place.

But if I've made a typo here, please tell me. I'm not ready to be that free.

John Higgs explains why we shouldn't fix typos [usvsth3m via MetaFilter]