Embarrassing Typos and How to Catch Them

Embarrassing typos are common. But some typos are more embarrassing than others. Like forgetting the “l” in the word public.

In the last few months, I’ve read two news stories about this error and caught an instance of it myself in a local business publication.

Is pubic Public Enemy #1 for Copy Editors?

On May 19, 2012, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin held its commencement. Attendees opened the program to see the king of all embarrassing typos: the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Pubic Affairs.

Susan Binford, the assistant dean for communications, said, “Obviously, we are mortified. It’s beyond embarrassing.”

embarrassing typos, UT Austin

Typos are only embarrassing when they go pubic—er, public. Image via Twitter

On September 13, 2012, news outlets picked up on a similar story involving a school district in Red Lion, Pennsylvania. It had displayed a banner promoting sponsorship and advertising opportunities.

The problem? The pitch was the following: Become a Partner in Pubic Education with the Red Lion Area School District. (In the photo, the school’s contact info has been obscured.)

embarrassing typos, Red Lion athletic sign

Red Lion ninth-graders still haven’t stopped laughing. Image via Twitter

West Michigan business newspaper MiBiz published a story on August 20, 2012, about New York City transplant and advertising professional George Bradshaw. According to the article, Bradshaw “…wrote and directed the short film ‘Pubic Museum: A Collection of Artifacts and Idiots’.” The actual title of the film is Public Museum.

Why pubic Doesn’t Jump Off the Page

So why don’t we catch embarrassing typos before the text is published? In comparison to public, pubic is a low-frequency word. It should leap out from the page, shouldn’t it? Not exactly.

Microsoft Word’s spell-check tool cannot flag a word as misspelled if the word exists in English. The word pubic, after all, is correctly spelled. (It’s just not usually the word you want.)

Interestingly, Office 2010 did flag pubic with a blue wavy underline when I typed this post. (Red underlines are for spelling errors, green underlines for grammatical errors.)

According to Microsoft’s help pages, the software “uses wavy blue underlines to indicate possible instances of inconsistent formatting.”

I also suspect that the “l” in public, especially in sans serif fonts, is so thin in comparison to other letters of the alphabet that our brain “fills it in” to fit the context. So even if readers see “pubic education,” it automatically registers as “public education.”

Don Dimoff, Red Lion’s marketing and communications manager, said, “I can’t tell you how many people told me that they had to look at the sign several times to see the mistake. Dozens of people had to look at it three, four, five times. I’m sure that’s how it got overlooked.”

How to Catch Embarrassing Typos

Spell-checkers can’t flag the “wrong” word if it’s a valid English word, such as is the case with public/pubic (and other embarrassing typos). So what to do?

  • Read the text aloud. If you have a text with just a few lines, spend a minute to review it. If you have a longer text or one that will be read by many people, then set aside the time to do a thorough out-loud reading.
  • Run your software’s Find feature and look specifically for inappropriate words. Writing a dissertation on funding for public education? Search for pubic. Printing a program for a piano recital? Search for rectal.
  • Have someone else read your text. Writers are often “too close” to the text that they write. Their brains often fill in gaps, correcting any errors in the copy. This is why we have copy editors. But even editors would benefit from collaborating with other professionals before they print or distribute a text.

Need help catching embarrassing typos? We’ll put the “l” back in public for you.

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