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.