Typos: Condemnation for Common Mistakes

Miss Steaks from Spell Checker Poem

Once, after filing a 49-page appellate brief in a case, I received the following email from a well-established attorney in my practice area:

I did not want to undercut the ‘thank you’ email I sent on Saturday by mentioning anything negative [about the brief you filed], but there’s something you may have noted already, but which, in case not, I draw to your attention for the future: the proofing needs to be done more carefully.

The sender then complained that my brief contained two small typos and one incomplete citation. Thankfully, all of these mistakes were in pro forma portions of the brief that the judges were unlikely to read, but I felt awful about them, particularly after spending nearly three weeks drafting and proofreading the damn thing. I read the brief from cover to cover multiple times, as did several other attorneys involved in the case, and not one of us caught those errors.

Why didn’t we catch them?

Well, according to a recent article on Wired:

The reason typos get through isn’t because we’re stupid or careless, it’s because what we’re doing is actually very smart, explains psychologist Tom Stafford, who studies typos of [sic] the University of Sheffield in the UK. “When you’re writing, you’re trying to convey meaning. It’s a very high level task,” he said.

As with all high level tasks, your brain generalizes simple, component parts (like turning letters into words and words into sentences) so it can focus on more complex tasks (like combining sentences into complex ideas). … When we’re proof reading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. The reason we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads.

So, the occasional typo isn’t necessarily an indication of shoddy work, as the well-intentioned grump implied in her message to me. It just happens, particularly under time constraints and limited resources.

Although typos can change the meaning of a sentence or, more seriously, the meaning of a legal document,** they are usually harmless, despite the strong reaction they generate in readers.

As for the brief I filed, the Court didn’t seem to notice the typos. I’m pleased to say that the case turned out the way I hoped it would.

Now, I’m knee-deep in another appellate brief, which might contain plenty of the typical typos found in the early drafts of legal documents: statute→statue, harass→harrass, and, sadly, public→pubic.

Hopefully, we’ll catch them all before we file. If not, I’m sure a little birdie will let me know after-the-fact.


*The image quotes a line from An Ode to a Spelling Checker by Jerrold H. Zar & Mark Eckman.

**As I mentioned in Perfectionism and Publishing, one of the early posts on this blog, “[a] misspelled or misplaced word can, for example, render an order of protection unenforceable.  See Davit v. Stogsdill, 371 Fed. Appx. 683 (2010).”

Posted in Law | Tagged , , , , | 28 Comments

What It Means To Be Biracial (A discussion of “Mexican White Boy”)

In 2010, about nine million people selected more than one race on the U.S. Census form.*

I was one of them. I’m predominantly Sri Lankan and Irish American, as I’ve discussed in Uncovering Our Roots: Why Does Family History Matter?, but my multiracial identity has changed over the course of my life in response to the circumstances around me, as I’ve mentioned in a post on racist themes in children’s literature.

Mexican White Boy Thumbnail CoverWith the context of this multi-racial background, I read Matt de la Peña’s Mexican White Boy (2008), a young adult novel that is currently on Vamos A Leer’s reading list for the 2014-15 school year. It features 16-year-old Danny, who is half Mexican and half white, who feels like he does not truly belong with either side of his family. He finds that he is “a white boy among Mexicans, and a Mexican among white boys.” To make matters more complicated, his Mexican father is no longer in his life, for reasons wholly unknown to Danny.

Meanwhile, the novel also features Uno, whose biracial heritage is Mexican and African American. His separated parents are hostile towards each other, causing Uno to feel like “it’s some kind of tug-of-war between black and Mexican, and he’s the rope.”

The boys become friends when Uno recognizes a way to turn Danny’s prowess on the baseball mound into a money-making endeavor. He has found it difficult to make money any other way:

He put in [job] applications at a mess of places, but nobody’s called him back. Not one restaurant, one clothing store, one shoe shop. Not even the coffee shop outside the mall that always has the ‘Now Hiring’ sign taped to the door. What’s up with that?


“It’s ‘cause my ass is half black. It ain’t right.”**

Sadly, the frustrating job market conditions that Uno faces are not unique to fiction. I’ve previously noted research that shows how the name of an applicant—and what potential employers assume about the ethnicity of a person with that name—impacts the likelihood of receiving a job interview. Individuals with ethnic-sounding names are not only less likely to get a job interview, but they’re also less likely to get a response from professors, whom many of us assume are educated enough to overcome their biases against certain ethnic/racial groups.

Mexican White Boy explores these types of structural barriers for ethnic minorities with an emphasis on the experiences of Danny and Uno, two boys caught between two identities. My own experience as a multi-racial American has only a little in common with the experiences de la Peña depicts for Danny and Uno—I’m from a different ethnic and socioeconomic background, and I live in a different part of the country—but it was easy to identify with their struggle to define themselves and to root for these two boys. I’m looking forward to introducing this novel to my own children when they are finally exploring what it means to be redheaded girls of South Asian heritage with Arabic names living in our part of America.

Three Daughters_The Misfortune of Knowing


*This represents only a fraction of Americans with multi-racial ancestry. For example, President Barack Obama is half African and half white, but he selected only the “Black” box. Here’s the 2010 Census Form (Question 9).

**This novel is intended for the 14-and-up crowd, which I think can handle the strong language and serious themes. Not everyone would agree with me, though.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Freshly Pressed & Freshly Published!

It’s been a busy week at The Misfortune of Knowing:

First, I wanted to announce that I finally released my first novel, Two Lovely Berries. Here’s the description:

Two Lovely Berries_Cover August 2014

Available Through Amazon (Click Image)

Nora and Aubrey Daley were never going to be the type of twins who lived together from womb to nursing home, despite their inseparable childhood in suburban Philadelphia and their matching Yale degrees. Their lives diverge soon after graduation—too soon, in Nora’s opinion—when Aubrey’s marriage to her college boyfriend changes more than her last name.

As Nora adjusts to a future without Aubrey by her side, new revelations about their past threaten to undo her progress and force her to question her memories. She and Aubrey share virtually all of their genes—but perhaps little else.

Two Lovely Berries is an exploration of the struggle for individuality between identical twins, complicated by family violence, divisive relationships, and personal demons from which even those born into a life of privilege cannot escape.

If the description interests you enough to read the novel, I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts on it (perhaps against my better judgment! ;-) ).

Freshly Pressed Mockingbird (2)Second, I also wanted to mention that, earlier this week, I was lucky enough to have a second post featured on Freshly Pressed. It was very exciting. The post was The Mockingbird Next Door: A Parasitic Memoir?, in which I discuss Harper Lee’s opposition to a journalist’s memoir/unauthorized biography.

The first time my blog was featured on Freshly Pressed was for Uncovering Our Roots: Why Does Family History Matter?, in which I discuss a memoir of a Catholic journalist seeking her Jewish heritage in Spain.

I guess memoirs of journalists are my thing. Maybe I should read more of them!

Have a great weekend.

Updated: I haven’t talked about my creative writing much on this blog, but this post on Jae’s Lit & Scribbles gives some background on this novel. Since that post, Two Lovely Berries went through a few rounds of edits, including a professional one, and grew by 4,000 words.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 62 Comments

Crazy English: On Being “Frenemies” With Neologisms

Welcome to the framily_Misfortune of Knowing

The 5th edition of the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary has added 5,000 words, including “chillax,” “selfie,” and “frenemy,” a move that recognizes the evolving nature of the English language (and probably gives younger players an edge!).

According to Merriam-Webster, a “frenemy” is someone “who pretends to be a friend but is actually an enemy.”

That would describe my husband’s perspective on neologisms, new words entering the English language. On the surface, he’s fairly progressive about language—he has no qualms about starting sentences with conjunctions or separating sentences with only one space after the period—but he’s skeptical of new words.

As he says:

I love obscure English words and untranslatable words from other languages. Bring on the tsundoku, the backpfeifengesicht, the hygge, the mamihlapinatapei, because each represents a distinct concept that requires a sentence to explain. That’s the same standard I apply to English neologisms. For example, frenemy, a word that goes back almost to World War II, has a complicated, subtle meaning that varies by context.

Cremains? Blawg? Framily? Friendtor? To pretend these words advance the English language is redonkulous.

Sprint’s “framily plan” ad campaign really annoys him. “We don’t need that word,” he insists each and every time he hears the commercial. “It’s a failed portmanteau. They crammed together ‘friends’ and ‘family,’ but your ‘framily plan’ will never include all of your friends and family, unless you can count them on your hands, because you can’t add more than 10 people.” He adds, “They should have called it ‘the decahedron’.”

He really could go on and on about it, but I’ll spare you. ;)

The wisdom of using such an unappealing “word” in advertisements is questionable, but who knows, maybe we’ll welcome it into our language “framily” someday. Stranger things have happened in the English language. Literally.

Posted in Misc. | Tagged , , , , , | 25 Comments

A Truth Universally Acknowledged: Articles About Marriage Must Reference Jane Austen (Even When It Doesn’t Apply)

Pride and Prejudice Opening Line

Did you hear the news that men are happier with smarter wives? That’s how the media has summed up a recent study on marital dissolution rates and education levels.

In The Reversal of the Gender Gap in Education and Trends in Marital Dissolution (August 2014), sociologist Christine R. Schwartz of the University of Wisconsin and analyst Hongyun Han of Northwestern explore marital trends in the United States. Delving into data on American marriages between 1950 and 2004,* Schwartz and Han learn that (1) an increasing number of marriages include a wife who is more highly educated than her husband; (2) these marriages are no longer more likely to end in divorce than marriages in which husbands are more highly educated than their wives; and (3) equally educated spouses are more likely to stay together than spouses in marriages in which the husband is more highly educated than his wife. In the past, marriages with a more highly educated husband were the most stable.**

The researchers suggest that these trends are tied to shifts in cultural norms as we’ve moved away from the husband-as-primary-breadwinner model and toward a more egalitarian model, in which husbands and wives both have responsibilites inside and outside of the home (not that it’s perfect: working women still do the lionshare of the housework!).

I learned of this gender gap study from my husband, who was irritated by The Telegraph’s garbled paraphrase of Jane Austen’s opening line of Pride & Prejudice.***

We all remember that line from Austen’s most beloved novel, right?

As the tongue-in-cheek aphorism goes: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man, in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

The Telegraph opens its article on “Men Are Happier With a Smarter Wife” (with a picture of Colin Firth as Darcy) by inverting Austen’s line, making it:

It was once a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune had everything a would-be wife could ever want.

But now it appears that it is men who ascribe to Jane Austen’s maxim – and they are the ones quite happy for the woman to be the breadwinner.

Well, it’s fair to say that in Jane Austen’s time, it was common for a woman with no fortune to be in want of a man in possession of one. Take Charlotte Lucas, for example, who thought highly of neither “men or matrimony,” yet still believed that marriage “was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.” But then we have Elizabeth Bennett, our protagonist, for whom Darcy’s large fortune was not enough to overcome his disgusting pride, making it quite a stretch to claim that Jane Austen believed “a single man in possession of a good fortune had everything a would-be wife could ever want.”

It’s an even bigger stretch to say that, as a result of this gender gap study, “now it appears that it is men who ascribe to Jane Austen’s maxim… they are the ones quite happy for the woman to be the breadwinner.”

Yes, the study’s findings are consistent with a shift away from the “traditional ‘breadwinner-homemaker’ model of marriage” —it’s true that an increasing number of women are entering the workforce—but there’s nothing in the study that suggests that men are “quite happy for the woman to be the breadwinner (emphasis added).” The researchers took only a preliminary look at the relative earnings of spouses, leaving “a complete analysis of the relationship between spouses’ relative education, earnings, and divorce to future research.”**** So, this study doesn’t shed much light on whether relationships in which a wife earns more money than her husband is more likely to divorce.

It’s important to remember that higher educational achievement isn’t necessarily correlated with higher earning capacity, particularly for women. Thanks to sex discrimination in the workplace, we still have a sex-segregated workforce (in which there are female-dominated jobs with lower pay) and a pay gap that results in women earning less than men for the same work. In addition, it’s also possible that women with higher levels of education are more likely to stay in unhappy marriages because their educational debt limits their ability to achieve financial independence.

So, while it might be true that more couples in which the wife is more highly educated are staying together, it may also be true that those that are staying together are the ones in which the wife doesn’t actually earn more than her husband.

As a Pew Report from 2013 states:

Despite the fact that mothers are generally more educated than their husbands today, a majority of fathers still earn more than their wives. The share of couples in which the husband’s income exceeds the wife’s was about 75% in 2011. This in part reflects different employment rates between married parents: about 65% of married mothers were employed in 2011, compared with about 90% of fathers. But it also reflects different earning patterns among men and women. Even in dual income families in which both fathers and mothers are working, 70% of these families consist of fathers who earn more than mothers. [See the Complete Report for this quote]

The Pew report also suggests that while attitudes about the makeup of the American family are changing, the pace of change is slow, with half of those who responded to the survey saying that “children are better off if a mother is home and doesn’t hold a job, while just 8% say the same about a father.”

Thus, the “universally acknowledged truths” of Jane Austen’s time—whether or not Austen or her heroines actually ascribed to them—remain entrenched today.


*This study focuses on opposite-sex couples. Few states recognized same-sex marriage by 2004.

**“Stable” defined only as less likely to end in divorce, which doesn’t necessarily mean these are happy families. As the researchers aptly note: “In the 1950s, couples who entered relationships in which wives had more education than their husbands may have been more likely to hold non-traditional beliefs associated with a greater risk of divorce.” One such “non-traditional belief” might be “it’s okay to divorce your husband if he’s abusive.”

***As for Mr. A.M.B., I hope that our similar educational achievements bode well for our marital stability. However, I think an even better sign for our future is that we both love Jane Austen. So far, my husband has read Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, and Persuasion. See these posts for his thoughts on these novels: (1) More Reasons Why Pride & Prejudice Isn’t Just For Girls Who Want a Boyfriend; (2) Jane Austen Isn’t Just For Mothers and Daughters (So Says My Husband); (3) Persuasion: Is It Better With Age?

**** The researchers claim in a single paragraph to have found “relative earnings and education operative relatively independently when it comes to trends in the risk of divorce,” but they don’t reveal any of their data or the math they used, instead dismissing the issue with a single vague chart (“Panel D” in “Figure 2”) that apparently blends together all of the economic factors at once.

*****Those interested in Jane Austen should check out Austen in August, founded by Adam at Roof Beam Reader and hosted by Jenna at Lost Generation Reader this year.


Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Strange & Ever After: A Perplexing End To A Worthwhile Trilogy

034 Susan Dennard’s trilogy about zombies rising in 1876 — Something Strange & Deadly, A Darkness Strange & Lovely, and Strange & Ever After — was an unlikely choice for me:

  • (1) I’m not particularly interested in paranormal historical fiction;
  • (2) The stereotypical cover featuring a blonde, young woman in a fancy dress doesn’t appeal to me;
  • (3) I’m about two decades older than its intended teenage audience; and
  • (4) I can’t remember the generic titles (which has nothing to do with my age, I’m not that old!).

But when I found out that Dennard’s zombies originate in Philadelphia, my hometown, I just had to read the first book.

Much to my surprise, I loved Something Strange & Deadly, in which Eleanor searches for her brother and meets the Spirit-Hunters employed by the city to stop the Necromancer from raising the Dead. In my review, I wrote:

[I]t was a thrill to see so many Philadelphia sites included in her story.  Eleanor has tea at 9th and Chestnut, which is the corner I used to live on; several of the boys who become the Dead were classmates at Germantown Academy, where my sister subbed for Latin last year; a character is admitted to Pennsylvania Hospital, where my other sister works in the Emergency Department; and, of course, the Dead are rising from Laurel Hill, which I pass on my way to work every day.*

The second novel, A Darkness Strange & Lovely, took place in Paris, where Eleanor and the Spirit-Hunters fight the freshly dead and hungry Les Morts. It wasn’t as captivating as the first novel, but it was good enough for me to pre-order the third and final novel in the trilogy, which arrived on my Kindle last week.

Susan Dennard SeriesIn the third book, Strange & Ever After, Eleanor and the Spirit-Hunters wind up in Egypt, where they finally face the Necromancer responsible for Eleanor’s pain.

One of the benefits of reading this novel on an e-reader is that I didn’t have to look at the cover. It’s yet another pale, pretty girl in a fancy dress, even though the protagonist of this story is a zombie-fighting woman who usually wears men’s clothing.** As she explains, “I cannot outrun the Dead in skirts and flounce.”

I appreciated Eleanor’s deviation from the gender norms of the time. However, for most of the novel, she is heavily dependent on the men in her life, particularly  her “demon” (which isn’t as sinister as it sounds) and, to a lesser extent, her love interest. The needlessly prolonged confirmation of Eleanor’s affection for this guy was annoying, but maybe it’s more believable to younger readers (its intended audience) who are less sure of themselves when it comes to love.

Eventually, Eleanor gains greater independence in an ending that I can only say is, well, controversial. I hated it at first. I wondered why would Dennard end the story like this: Was it to further Eleanor’s personal growth? Was it to avoid a pesky love-triangle? Was it to toy with her readers’ emotions?

After stewing over it for a few hours, though, I could finally see that what Dennard did was a fitting ending to the series, even if it isn’t the one I would’ve written. I’d love to see someone (preferably Dennard!) write an alternative ending or take the current ending to the next step. I can’t be the only reader interested in getting to know “Mr. McIntosh” a little better.


*In my first post on this series, I included pictures of what Laurel Hill Cemetery looks like today. Those pictures were from winter (see here). In this post, I’ve included two pictures of what Laurel Hill—and the view from Laurel Hill—looks like in July.

**Eleanor managed to get away with wearing men’s clothing better than Frog Music’s Jenny did (see Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music: Portraying Gender Norms That Still Exist Today).

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Is Amazon a “Monopoly” (Or Is The Publishing Industry Too Loose With Its Words)?

In the ubiquitous, and increasingly annoying, coverage of the Amazon–Hachette dispute, it’s common for those who side with Hachette to assert that Amazon is a “monopoly” without really understanding what that word means.* One example is Steve Wasserman’s chicken-little-esque op-ed that appeared in The Nation (online) earlier this month. He claims, “the Obama Justice Department, seemingly mesmerized by visions of a digital utopia, is oddly blind to the threat to publishing posed by Amazon’s growing monopoly.”

In response to Wasserman’s op-ed, which calls for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Amazon, Max at Litigation and Trial* explores what a monopoly is:

A “monopoly” is when one supplier of a particular product or service is able to control the market. That does not remotely describe Amazon: the vast majority of books sold by Amazon are supplied by someone else, i.e., the publisher, and those same books are available elsewhere…

A “monopsony” is when one buyer of a particular product or service is able to control the market. (Consider, for example, if there were several commercial airplane manufacturers, but only one commercial airline.) “Monopsony” is potentially a better fit for Amazon than “monopoly,” because Amazon’s real pricing power is that it can push a hard bargain with publishers when it buys the ebooks, whereas with consumers Amazon sells the books at or below the prevailing market prices. …

In a monopsony, the monopsonist refrains from buying to force the suppliers to start discounting against one another (because there are no other buyers), until they are no longer making a profit. That simply isn’t the case here. First, the publishers have total control over where they sell their ebooks, and they exercise that power: the “Big Five” chose to not participate in Amazon Unlimited. Second, the ebooks are available all over the place, like Walmart and Target.

So, Amazon is not a monopolist or a monopsonist, nor did it engage in predatory pricing. As Max reminds us, the U.S. Department of Justice responded to complaints (from Barnes & Noble, the Authors Guild, and others) about Amazon in 2012, finding that “[s]ome of the criticism directed at Amazon may be attributed to a misunderstanding of the legal standard for predatory pricing.” Meanwhile, Hachette was one of the five publishers sued by the Justice Department that year for antitrust violations.

Most of the criticism about Amazon is fueled by misunderstandings and emotion, not common-sense, facts, or information about the legal or economic context of the Amazon-Hachette dispute. These are two big for-profit companies. Amazon is under no obligation to sell books from all publishers, and Hachette is under no obligation to sell its books through Amazon. In fact, those who are wary of Amazon’s growth should actually side with Amazon in this dispute and stop buying Hachette books through Amazon, thereby encouraging Hachette to continue to sell its books elsewhere and to increase Amazon’s competition. That’s how the market should work.


*The details of the dispute remain vague, but it’s presumably a fight about e-book prices. Hachette and Amazon haven’t agreed on the terms, so Amazon hasn’t been loading its inventory of Hachette books as fully and hasn’t been offering pre-orders. Hachette books are still available through numerous other retailers because Amazon isn’t actually a monopoly.

**Max’s full post, which contains greater detail on these issues, is available here.

***See also, What’s Troubling About Amazon?

Posted in Books, Law | Tagged , , , , , , | 22 Comments