In praise of typos

John Higgs Author of The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds.

I’m a big fan of typos. So the ‘grammar Nazi’ tweet, which was featured on UsVsTh3m last week, gave me the horrors.

It’s not just out-and-out Nazis who are gunning for typos. There are armies of liberal pedants out there, hooked on the endorphin rush of condemning apostrophes they find in wild and inappropriate places, safe in the knowledge that apostrophes do not fight back.

But mistakes are human, and being human is good. The fingerprints visible in the plasticine of early Aardman animations, for example, help make those films more impressive and memorable than their later flawless efforts, such as whatever that thing was that had pirates in. In a similar way, occasional typos remind us that a piece of writing has been hand-built by somebody, constructing their argument or story letter by letter and word by word. They show us how these texts have been crafted.

I’ve just read a typo-heavy book called Ragworts by Bill Drummond. It was a short but rewarding book, and a professional copy edit wouldn’t have added anything to what I got out of it. If anything, a few mistakes can make the author feel more present in the work. They also make the reader feel closer to the moment of creation. It’s like a live musical performance which is not as technically perfect as a polished studio recording, but which offers a greater sense of communion between musician and audience.

There is widespread belief that doing things correctly is important, because that is what leads to success. You can see this in talent shows such as The X Factor. Kids with real talent apply themselves, doing whatever it is that the judges consider valid, and after a lot of work they produce a perfect performance in which they have done everything right. And then they are forgotten the moment that the TV is switched off, because ultimately that’s not what music is about.

The obsession with doing things right leads to the belief that perfection is enough – that perfection is valid in itself. That’s not the case. Professionalism can be the icing on the cake, but first you need a cake. There are limits to the amount of mistakes we can handle, of course, and obviously mistakes which alter the meaning of the work need to be fixed. But that does not mean we should aim for the extreme of a zero-tolerance policy to mistakes. The belief that the world is a sensible, rational and ordered place is known as the aneristic delusion, and that’s not the sort of nonsense that we want our language to promote.

The American Nazi Party’s tweet shows they understand that correct English gives credibility. We have been taught to subconsciously take a message more seriously if the grammar and punctuation are correct, and this situation will continue as long as anti-typo pedants continue to demonise minor flaws. But, surely, it is the message that we should be focusing on, not the professionalism of its delivery? If the American Nazi Party are right in thinking that good presentation subconsciously grants them legitimacy, then maybe we shouldn’t value correct English quite so highly.

What is needed is a Typo Defence League. I intend to found such an organisation myself, as soon as I can decide on the most annoying way to misspell the word ‘league’.

If the writing of John Higgs interests you, and it should, then please read his blog: his writing on Killing Joke is simply extraordinary.


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