Monday, March 17, 2008

The difference one little word makes

Last week, I got a phone call from my Dad. I've been typing his hand-written genealogy out for him over several months and he'd picked up a few typos for me to fix. One of them was quite funny. It was in a passage about one of his Scottish great, great uncles. The sentence was supposed to say, "He was to live in Dundee until his death, aged 81." I'd accidentally left out the crucial word "to". Dad was laughing as he told me, "You wrote, 'He was live in Dundee until his death, aged 81."'

It got me thinking about other instances I've heard of where one little word was omitted. There is the historical moon-landing quote by Neil Armstrong. I wasn't born until the tail end of 1969, but my brother and sister had a half-day off school, along with all the other children in the country, so they could watch the televised moon walk. It was such a famous, pivotal moment in time but Neil Armstrong possibly bungled it by saying, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Over the years I've read theories that he was supposed to have said, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." That small word, "a", makes the sentence much clearer and more meaningful to me, anyway.

That's merely words. I've even seen examples where the lack of a comma or semi-colon has completely changed the whole sense of what the person was trying to say. For example, a feminist author was reported to have written, "A woman without her man is nothing." Only when her readers started scratching their heads and saying, "That doesn't sound like something she'd say," did the magazine editors work out that what should have been written was, "A woman; without her, man is nothing."

And there's this one where something as small as a full stop made all the difference. A renowned theologian in the 1950s (I think it was someone like C.S. Lewis or Henri Nouwen but I can't quite remember) was asked this question in an interview. "Do you really think that God exists?" The theologian replied, "I don't think. I know." But some journalist transcribed it as, "I don't think I know." Now, that's a massive difference!

So I never underestimate the value of a thorough proof-read. Since I've been writing, I've been taught the value of having at least one, preferably two proof-readers. An author needs to do their own proof-reading, of course, but you can't ever rely on your own because you are so close to your own writing, and you've been over and over the same ground in the editing so often before, that your mind automatically glosses over your sentences without picking these little things up.

In fact, I take it so seriously that if somebody was to ask me if I'd proof-read their work, I think I'd hesitate to take up the offer. To me, proof-reading proves that the finesse is really in the little details.


  1. There's a book out there called "Eats, shoots and leaves" -- all about punctuation.

    Maybe I should get that book.

    Love your post. Had me giggling.
    I'm glad your ancestor was live until he died. That's the best way to be.

  2. I often wonder if people read my blog the way I've written it. With the emphasis in the same places.
    I'm laughing with you and Comfy about your ancestor living right up until his death! Good thing, I reckon!

  3. Wow. Now I feel all kinds of pressure to make sure that I "dot all my i's and cross all my t's". :o) I enjoyed reading your post. Thanks for the smile.

  4. wow that is quite a difference. I'm kind of a stickler about commas and things and often wonder if the emphasis I mean is the one coming across.

  5. LOL! You made that great, great uncle sound like a talk show host. "Live from Dundee..." I thought that was very accurate of you!

    Excellent points. I usually proofread my work a couple of times, then pass it to my husband and Marina to proofread. With all that, I STILL end up with one or two typos when I hit the submit key.

    Peace and Laughter,

  6. My past life in the printing/ typesetting business meant LOTS of proofreading. I didn't like proofreading my own work as, like you said, I was too close to it and often would read a sentence the way I wanted it to read - not the way it really did read! (That still happens, unfortunately!) I hate finding my own errors - would rather find someone elses!

    I laughed out loud at your Dundee typo (sorry!) It just sounded funny. I still burn at the memory of a story I had printed in our local newspaper as a first-grader. My story was chosen, along with several others, out of many that were submitted and I was really excited about it. Then when the paper came, I read what they printed. They transposed two letters in a word. I was furious! I had a copy of what I submitted and had proof that I didn't transpose those letters! My mother made the excuse that they probably wanted it to look more like a first-grader's writing (meaning it should have had a mistake). Utter nonsense - I still believe that today! Maybe that experience was good for me, I don't know. But to this day, I am a big believer in proofreading!

    I have read part of "Eats, shoots and leaves - the author rants on a bit for my taste so I stopped reading it. Todd liked it, though.

    Did you celebrate Canberra Day? I saw it on our calendar and we wondered about it.

    You're friend,

    (Just a little typo humor!)

  7. Happy Easter Paula!

    Peace and Laughter,