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).”


  1. Feel better about my typos already!! Especially when so many people proofread but don’t notice typos! To combat the meaning thing, especially if it’s your own text, I’ve learned to proofread my texts backwards. It takes ages so I only do it for work but caught a few that way. Funnily other people’s typos never another me, only my own!

  2. Thank you for making us all feel better! I catch at least one typo in my writing after I publish a post and immediately go fix it. This is after proofreading extensively! I just have to accept that typos are a fact of life, at least for me. 😳

    It’s even worse on my phone! The keyboard isn’t very responsive and I believe my phone literally hates me or holds a grudge against me, which causes me to embarrass myself so often. Sigh. But I know most people don’t care because we all make simple mistakes.

  3. Maybe now I won’t be so hard on myself the next time I catch a typo I should have caught when I first proofread my work.

    1. Good luck with the first volume of your grandparents’ letters! That’s exciting. It’s great that you’ve found a proofreader you trust.

  4. Am also enjoying TLB and no typos so far! It is remarkable, as the article says, how one can read past simple errors time and time again yet someone else’s typo will leap off the page. Yet far more depressing is the general standard of spelling and grammar displayed by non-writers, maybe those engaging in discussion and comment online. It was always thus but the Net has given people the opportunity to display their shortcomings. Then again, I’m terribly ignorant in certain areas too so I shouldn’t condemn. *Carefully checks for typos before posting*

    1. “It was always thus but the Net has given people the opportunity to display their shortcomings.”

      So true! I tolerate informal/imprecise spellings in casual written conversations–it’s all part of how language evolves–but I still cringe when I see certain attempts to spell.

      I’m glad to hear that you’re enjoying Two Lovely Berries so far! It was fun to write. I’m slightly over 40,000 words into my next story, but it’s on hold until I’m finished with this brief. 🙂

  5. Being slightly dyslexic, typos are a lot more common for me. I read and re-read, yet never see the mistakes. I was diagnosed in college thankfully and after that understood why it took me three times to read anything. As for legal docs, I understand why the need for a perfectly executed document. As an architect, it can mean a great deal in legal documents, which all architectural drawings and specifications are once submitted.

    1. Yeah, careful proofreading is much more important for legal documents! We do the best we can, but minor typos sometimes make it into the final product. Thankfully, that brief is the only example I know about from my own work (the person who sent me that email has read some of my other work and hasn’t mentioned finding any other typos!).

  6. Sometimes pointing out typos is just being uptight. But as someone who works as an editor, I know that we often need that extra pair of eyes!

    1. Judging from the quality of your blog, I bet you’re a great editor! An extra set of eyes is always helpful. With briefs, we’re usually under time/resource constraints that make it hard to have a truly independent proofreader. We do the best we can. Thankfully, the end result is usually pretty good (the person who sent me that email has read other briefs and hasn’t mentioned finding any typos!). 🙂

  7. As a self-published author, I’m well aware of this phenomenon, and it bugs me a lot. We do the best we can and move on. If we worried about every typo that slipped by, we’d never write again! 🙂

    1. So true! We do the best we can. Some consumers assume that the items they buy should be perfect and that a handful of minor typos suggests a lazy author/publisher (which might be true if there are more than just a few mistakes). It’s unreasonable, particularly when the book is inexpensive.
      I hope you had a nice weekend!

  8. Crazy! My experience in science is that people generally don’t get concerned over a handful of typos in a paper or proposal, but it is annoying if they are numerous. Three mistakes in 49 pages is nothing!

    1. I’m glad to hear that the science field seems to have a more reasonable perspective on minor typos.

      With my brief, at least there weren’t any errors in the argument section. What’s sad, though, is that my involvement with that case is one of the highlights of my career, and the email I received afterwards really tarnished the experience for me. I can’t think about that case without also thinking about that email.

  9. I’m at the 83% mark in your novel (absolutely LOVING it!) and I haven’t found any typos! 🙂

    Many years ago in a stuffy corporate setting one of our young colleagues passed the CPA exam. We made her a huge poster congratulating her on becoming a Certified Pubic Accountant. Funny thing is, no one noticed until well after lunch even though it was up all day. Like you said, you see the words that are in your head!

    1. Yep, that “pubic” slips in — I worked at a newspaper that ran a headline with “pubic school.” My recurring errors are leaving words out and typing “form” instead of “from.”

      I’m working with an author that sent me a manuscript “typo-free.” He has since then sent me at least 4 corrected versions.

      I see typos in books coming from the major publishers in New York. **it happens. We hope we catch them all, and if not, with any luck, can laugh about it later. But when it changes the meaning, then that creates a new problem, especially in the legal arena. The most common mistake I see is actually not a typo, it’s grammatical — lay vs. lie. Another I’ve seen crop up — from New York books — is “lead” when it should have been “led.”

      Best-case scenario — the typo leaves us with a funny story.

    2. Elizabeth, I am so glad to hear that you’re enjoying Two Lovely Berries so far–and that you haven’t found any typos! The novel went through so many rounds of edits, and I just kept finding typos/grammatical issues until I finally sent it to a professional editor. Her attention to detail was unbelievable. It went through one more round of (minor) edits, had two more readers, and then was ready for the world (I hope!). If there are any remaining errors, they are all mine. I did the final read. 🙂

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