Should You Point Out Errors?

How can you correct people’s errors without coming off like a jerk?

Jeff Deck, read by Mignon Fogarty ,
December 29, 2011
Episode #304


Kathleen on Twitter asked, “When is it appropriate to point out misspellings by people you don’t know? Is it ever appropriate?”

I never know how to answer this kind of question because I don’t correct people, but it’s a very common question, so I turned to Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson for an answer because they wrote a whole book about traveling around the country correcting errors on signs.

We’re surrounded by spelling and grammar mistakes. It’s only natural to want to point typos out to those who have made them.  It’s the same impulse that leads us to say, “Hey, you’ve got a little something in your teeth,” when we spot an unwitting friend with half a vegetable hanging out of his mouth. In some situations, pointing out an error is worthwhile, even altruistic, but in other situations you’re simply going to tick someone off. How do you recognize the right time for speaking up? 

Also, be honest about your motivation. Are you trying to help someone improve her communication—or are you just being snarky?  If the latter, do not pass GO. Thank you for playing. But if you are trying to be helpful, read on!

Public Errors versus Private Errors

Are you trying to help someone improve her communication—or are you just being snarky?

First, recognize the big difference between private and public communication.If someone has written you an e-mail or sent you a text, her message will not be seen by the world at large (unless the News of the World gets hold of it).  That communication is private, and often fleeting.  Pointing out mistakes in private correspondence can come across as peevish and pointless.  You really don’t want to say, “Thanks for this love letter, but you spelled 'dewy' with an extra e.” 

Public communication, on the other hand, is more permanent and will be seen by more people than just you and the error-maker. Here, you can spare someone from potential embarrassment caused by erroneous spelling or grammar. Thus when we decided to hunt down typos across the country, we chose to focus on public signage, rather than breaking into homes to fix the spelling on Grandma’s stitching sampler.

Speaking Errors versus Writing Errors

There’s also a significant difference between errors in spoken language and errors in written language. Speech is unrehearsed and ephemeral (unless the speaker is a politician or other public figure). Are you annoyed when your aunt pronounces “nuclear” as nook-yoo-lar? Let it go.  You don’t like the way that your local news anchor talks?  Please refrain from writing him a letter to tell him so.  (Yes, more people do this than you would imagine. This is why he’s wearing that forced smile.)  Written errors, however, tend to linger, and so our efforts would be better spent on them.

Approach with Courtesy

[[AdMiddle]Once you’ve confirmed that yes, pointing out an error would be beneficial for the misspeller and future viewers of the text, be courteous and deferential in your approach.  Something like, “Hi, I’m sorry to bother you, but I just happened to notice a minor mistake in the sign out front.”  Don’t be confrontational or sarcastic. As Yogi Berra once said, “You’ll fix more typos with honey than with vinegar.”  (Or was that Bill Strunk?)
A word of caution: no matter how gentle your approach, many people will initially react by becoming defensive. To some extent, we are the words that we use; our writing is an outgrowth of ourselves, an offering to the world. So don’t be surprised when your observations of written errors are taken as personal slights. Defensiveness is not a productive reaction, of course—business owners in particular should be more concerned about the image that their business is projecting—but we humans are charmingly irrational.

Focus on the Typo Itself

Emphasize that this is just about the typo. Separate the writing from the person—it’s one rare instance where the passive voice comes in handy. You could say, “I noticed that there’s a typo in your sign,”* instead of “I noticed that you made a typo in your sign.” Don’t come across as judgmental. You may find it helpful to mention that everybody makes mistakes (including you), and if you have the appropriate corrective tools handy, offer to help make the correction.

Defuse Tension

“What school do you teach at?”  “Why should I fix it?  Because you say so?”  “Does it really matter?”  Those are just a few of the tense reactions we encountered while on our typo hunt across America. The game isn’t lost at this point, but it’s close. Defuse the tension in the situation with humor and maybe a reassurance that you didn’t mean to offend. You’re merely trying to help.  With luck, you can help the misspeller relax and see the benefits of correcting his mistake.

Know When to Back Off

“Thanks, I’ll fix it later,” is another all-too-common dismissal.  If you’re pointing out an error in a store, so is “Are you actually here to buy anything, man?” One of the most stubborn refusals we heard was “I would rather have a sign spelled incorrectly than a tacky-looking sign,” and that was in an educational toy store!  If the misspeller has offered you a dismissal, alas, it’s time to back down. Thank her for her time and depart.

You can’t fix every typo in the world—believe me, we tried that!  But if you can make a small difference in public text once in a while, you have made an improvement to our shared surroundings, and that’s something to be proud of.  If you can help the misspeller to understand the error or to be more careful with his writing in the future, that’s even better—but be respectful and recognize that correcting errors is, at best, an endeavor with a fifty-percent success rate.

This article was written by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson, the authors of The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time.  Jeff is a freelance writer and editor based in New Hampshire, and Benjamin works at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. You can find out more about their book at http://www.greattypohunt.com

* Note: This sentence isn't in the passive voice; it simply puts emphasis on the error instead of the person who made the error. Read our article about passive voice to learn more.

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