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).”