I have done far more proofreading in my life than I've spent time writing. It's the nature of the deal. If the adage for carpenters is measure twice, cut once; then for those who work with the written word it is write once, proofread, correct, write again, proofread, change, and proofread again and then again. Still…there will be errors.
The University of Wisconsin handed out more than four thousand graduate diplomas with the name Wisconson printed at the top of every single one. No one noticed the error for six months. A Missouri school found themselves in a similar predicament when they had to recall thousands of book bags with The Univeristy of Missouri printed on them.
Penguin Publishing in Australia issued an urgent recall of a cookbook that contained an instruction to season pasta with "salt and freshly ground black people." Also in Australia, Parliament House experienced some embarrassment when they unpacked mugs to commemorate a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama, only to discover they had misspelled his name and now were unable to sell the Barrack Obama souvenirs. Far more costly was the airline that advertised flights for $39 instead of $3,900. The error wasn't noticed until 2,000 tickets had been sold. It cost Alitalia $7.2 million.
I have two personal favorites: the news crawl that read "Report: Armstrong Used Rugs" and the poster that stated "Buy Bed, Free 1 Night Stand." Just give that a moment. Perhaps accurate as a furniture give-away but rather awkward in innuendo.
We can ask ourselves how things like this happen because surely they have people looking things over, checking and re-checking. Yes, but still, there will be errors.
Proofreading is challenging—not because it is particularly demanding—but because our brains are designed to work too well. The title of this column is a sentence researchers used to demonstrate just how well our brains can solve errors to help us understand what we are reading. If a word is misspelled our brains simply fix the error so it makes sense. At first it was thought that as long as the first and last letters remained in the correct spot our brains would unscramble the rest with ease. Turns out there is a bit more to it. Our brains can also predict what words might come next and will put things into a context that makes sense even before we actually read them. Sentence structure has a lot to do with it, as well as the fact our brains don't need to see each word individually when reading.
So the same brain structure that is jumping ahead, unscrambling, predicting and recognizing the next word as it goes along is the same one trying to pick up on errors so they can be corrected. No matter how many times something is read, or how many sets of eyes are deployed in the task of ensuring everything looks fine, sometimes there will be errors, like the one made by the mint in Chile after authorizing the production of 1.5 million coins stamped with the country's name as C-H-I-I-E.
It is said being a proofreader increases patience and helps slow us down. I can't say it has done that for me but I do know something that occurs to me as I proofread a document. I am reminded of how hard our brains work to find what is right and often overlooks what might be wrong. We have to search for the mistakes because they're not as obvious with a mind that can help us see past them.
I wish we would more readily take this capacity into other areas of life. Parents make mistakes. So do instructors and clerks, technicians and administrators, writers and referees…and anyone else who does anything, says anything or plans anything in the course of the day.
Proofreading is an interesting task in that the goal is to search for mistakes, but in other areas of our life we don’t need to be doing that. Since our brains have the remarkable ability to see what is right, instead of what's wrong, let's lead with that. That's my outlook.