Category Archives: Cautionary tales

Why copy editing matters: Comparing a Globe online story with the printed version

Copy editing seems to be on the way out in newspapers across the country. The number of simple errors that make it into print is increasing in most papers, and some even offer  the option to “report a typo” in their online stories.

Here’s the thing: Copy editing matters, and it’s about much more than typos. I normally find myself rolling my eyes at a few silly mistakes in the big papers (don’t get me started on the online only content posted by radio and TV stations), but today I actually had to give up reading a story in the Globe and Mail because the number of errors was so distracting that the content just wasn’t sinking in.

The worst part is that at least two errors were straight typos that even a spell check program would have caught. Surely the Globe can afford to run spell check, even if they can’t afford to keep copy editors on staff?

I thought it would be interesting to compare some of the mistakes in the printed paper with the story online to see how it’s evolved. Many (not all) of the errors have been fixed, and I have to wonder if they were changed because staff spotted them or because readers did. If it was staff who spotted the mistakes, why were they not given the chance to do so before the paper went to press?

Here are just four errors from the print story, and what had happened to them online as of 2:45 Pacific time on Sunday.

Error Type Fixed online?
“hopsital” Spelling error Yes: Changed to “hospital”
“65% of Canadians die in hospital every year” Factual error: If 65% of Canadians died in hospital every year, we’d be in big trouble. The sentence as worded means that 65% of all the people in Canada die in hospital every year. Yes: Changed to “65 per cent of Canadian deaths every year occur in hospitals.” Ah, that’s much better. Much less likely to lead to catastrophic depopulation.
“SAYS Ru Taggar Sunnybrook’s chief nursing executive” Miscapitalization; missing comma Yes: Changed to “says Ru Taggar, Sunnybrook’s chief nursing executive
“when he signs Danny Boy Typo (wrong word) No: “Signs” has not yet been corrected to “sings”

I may be pickier than most, but the Globe actually lost me as a reader on this story because I was so distracted by the number of simple errors. Some of these would have been caught by a simple spell check (“hopsital,” “SAYS”). But only a real, live person can catch an error like the incorrect use of a statistic.

Copy editing is much more than catching typos: It’s an important part of presenting a credible story.






In headlines, line breaks matter

When I saw this ad, my first reaction was to wonder what was so incomparable about the senior in the picture. He doesn’t look all that exciting! Then I realized I’d been led astray by the line break. The ad isn’t about an incomparable senior who’s living in Pennsylvania. It’s about incomparable senior living in Pennsylvania. Watch those line breaks!


Why spell check is not the answer to all your problems…

I can only imagine it was some strange combination of a typo, spell check making some wonky suggestions, and a proofreader who didn’t read the story that led a Globe and Mail story about a totem pole to bear the headline “Deciphering a postal code.” That’s the danger of spell check. Sure, those are all real words, but they are absolutely not the right ones here!

Here’s the headline in context:

 Headline: Deciphernig a postal code

And here’s the story online, with a much more logical headline, borrowed from the print story’s subhead. Unfortunately, the online headline – Southern Haida Gwaii will see the first carved pole raised in more than a century – is also incorrect. The writer says this on Twitter:




Avoid errors by giving your online marketers a style guide

I saw this Google ad in my GMail window today:

Asphalt Paving – – Patches, Driveways, Parking Lots. Call the “Zar of Tar” 604-922-2314

I was intrigued enough to check whether this company really does not know how to spell a word (czar) in its tagline. I clicked through to the website and saw this:

Vancouver writer and editor - tar tagline

So, the company knows how to spell czar properly, which is a relief. So how did a non-word (zar) end up in the Google ad? My guess is the ad was created by a marketing person who had only ever heard the slogan, and had never seen it written down. Is that possible? If an external person was hired to create the ads, it certainly is.

So, how can you avoid having key words like those in your tagline misspelled in your online advertising? Create a style guide for all external (and internal) personnel to use. It should include your preferred spelling of any words that are important for your business, as well as entire phrases that really matter. (For instance, the tagline here — and a registered one, at that — is “The Czar of Tar,” not “The Tar Czar.”) Even if the marketing person had not created a non-word, he or she could still have used the spelling “tzar,” which is not incorrect in general, but IS incorrect when your tagline uses a different spelling. You’re paying for the work, and for the clicks, so you might as well get it right!

Proofread, please, please, please!

I admit it: I go on and on about how important proofreading is. I generally focus on the importance of avoiding errors in business communications. But proofreading is important in your personal communications, too — especially for those times when we still invest the money to put ink to paper and actually send something in the mail. I can only imagine the anguish of the bride who received her wedding invitation set with these spelling errors.

You can click through to see larger images, but the first card says “Celebrtation” instead of “Celebration,” and the RSVP card says “celbrating” instead of “celebrating.” Remember that many online forms, such as the one the bride would have used to create these invitations online, do not have a built-in spell-checker function. You must carefully check your work before hitting the submit button!

Even short texts need to be edited

In short blocks of text, like Google or Facebook ads (or, in the offline world, billboards and tag lines), every word counts. That’s why I’m shocked by how often these ads are full of spelling or grammatical errors, or are so mangled as to be beyond comprehension. Here are a few recent examples:

1. A Google ad:
Immigration Fee Increases – – U.S.C.I.S will be increasing fees November 23, 2010. Appy Today.

I suspect they mean “apply today,” as appies have very little to do with immigration.

2. A facebook ad:
Fear of eating makes you fat? If there is a solution, why should be afraid? Easy, cheap and delicious, peep here.

I think it’s unlikely that a fear of eating would make anyone fat, but this ad is such a disaster that it seems unworthy of any further analysis.

3. Another facebook ad:
beware: these 4 supposedly “healthy” foods can actually increasing stomach fat . the diet solution.

The writer of this ad should have been beware of bad verb conjugation and wonky spacing, never mind a fear of capital letters!

4. A bus ad:
Beauty is only skin deep. Melanoma goes much deeper.
BC cancer survivor, Hope Courtright, knows. At 21 she was diagnosed.

This short ad has two problems:

First, those commas should not be there. It would be correct to write “Hope Courtright, a BC cancer survivor, knows,” but not the other way around. Why? Here’s the test. Try removing the information between the commas. Does the sentence still make sense? If not, you shouldn’t be using them. Here’s another way to think of it. Would you say U.S. President, Barrack Obama, knows? Nope. The commas don’t belong there either, and for the same reason.

Second: “At 21 she was diagnosed.” Ideally, this should be rewritten to “She was diagnosed at 21.”

So, keep in mind that even short texts need to be edited. In fact, when you have few words to work with, it’s even more important to make sure you get the maximum impact from every one.

Is that really what you meant to say?

In news reporting, journalists focus on getting all the most important bits of information into a story’s lead sentence — and even on getting the more interesting or important bits up toward the front of the sentence. They aim to fill this one important  sentence with the answers to all the basic questions — who, what , when, where, why, how.

When using this formula, you can end up with sentences that convey information very effectively, even though they sound quite different from the way people would speak, or how they would write in a non-news format. However, you really need to re-read sentences constructed with this formula to make sure they say what you mean, since treating pieces of information like building blocks that can be move around to fit a formula doesn’t always work. Here’s a recent example from

Metro Vancouver’s Transit Police Service on Friday released video of nine incidents in which its officers deployed Tasers in response to a CBC freedom of information request.

This fits the formula perfectly — answers to who, when, what, and why are all there — but in this case the “why”  reads like it’s part of the “what” — so it most definitely does *not* say what the writer intended it to mean.

Proofread business tweets, too

Twitter’s format lends itself to strange abbreviations, missing punctuation, and so on. But if you’re trying to build a business brand — or if you’re a reputable news organization — it’s worth taking a few extra seconds to proofread your tweet and make sure it makes sense and contains no errors (other than those you’ve made to adapt to the 140-character limit). Here’s an example of an unproofed tweet gone wrong, from @cbcnewsbc (the British Columbia arm of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation):

Today, the Delta, New Westminster and Tsawwassen and Ladner, to finish the day in Richmon

Say what?

Someone on CBC’s end must have realized the mistake, because the tweet quickly disappeared from @cbcnewsbc‘s profile, and a new tweet was sent. Here’s what they actually meant to say:

Today torch hits Delta,New West,Tsawwassen,Ladner+ Richmond.Share thoughts/impressions at The Hub : #van2010 #olympics

But it’s too late — the mangled tweet survives in TweetDeck.

Here’s a tip that may save you from unproofed tweeting: If you use TweetDeck, disable the option to post simply by hitting “Enter.” You’re much more likely to slow down and check what you’ve written if you have to take your hands off the keyboard to click the “post” button.

Be careful with your placeholder text

Using placeholder (or “dummy”) text when your final copy is not ready, or when you’re creating a template, can be a good way to get the design process moving and make sure you allow adequate room for the text destined to fill a space.

But there is potential for disaster when using placeholder text, as evidenced by this screenshot from an e-mail promotion I received today from Flight Centre.


The printing industry has, for hundreds of years, had a standard set of dummy text, known as Lorem Ipsum. It’s a chunk of scrambled Latin text that is best to use when you need a placeholder. Why?

Well, first, if you are trying to determine whether you’ve got a good design, it’s much easier to tell what it will really look like when you insert your finished text if you are using varied letters and word lengths rather than repeated words.

But what’s most important is that when you do your final spell-check (you *do* do a final spell check, don’t you?) the made-up words that form the Lorem Ipsum text will be flagged if you’ve forgetten to replace them with your finished content — so you won’t send out an e-mail promotion like the one above. 

Here are the first two paragraphs of the standard Lorem Ipsum text:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Suspendisse arcu sem, bibendum vel condimentum eget, posuere a tellus. Aenean non arcu lorem. Fusce ut dolor erat. Cras posuere, mi eu convallis facilisis, tellus turpis molestie lacus, vitae tempor magna felis a erat. Etiam sollicitudin aliquet dapibus. Cras euismod urna in purus semper condimentum. Pellentesque malesuada porttitor odio, ac mollis nisi consequat eget. In in nisl neque. Integer vel consectetur quam. Nunc quam libero, accumsan in placerat at, lacinia feugiat arcu. Aenean convallis lobortis justo, vel scelerisque nibh consectetur a. Maecenas eu gravida nisi. Praesent sed magna dui, sed cursus magna. Donec euismod, neque at dignissim cursus, arcu libero egestas ante, a egestas augue lorem eget arcu. Phasellus vel nibh non tellus porta fringilla eget quis urna. Morbi vitae est sem. Sed sodales tristique nisl, vel rhoncus orci placerat mollis. Curabitur posuere nibh ligula, sed iaculis massa.

Pellentesque libero tortor, laoreet ac vestibulum et, placerat vel nisi. Etiam ultrices faucibus gravida. Praesent porttitor interdum tempus. Morbi lacinia massa sed nunc iaculis in mattis ante consectetur. Phasellus eu felis massa. Maecenas ac dolor dui, sed dapibus sem. Fusce velit nulla, iaculis ut consectetur non, facilisis non quam. Praesent in orci dui. Vestibulum at adipiscing mi. Sed tortor lectus, porttitor et congue vel, eleifend nec mauris. Suspendisse potenti. Curabitur placerat porta vehicula. Nam non purus justo. Praesent hendrerit lacinia pulvinar. Nunc venenatis sapien et dolor adipiscing et tempus magna viverra. Integer porta pellentesque magna, vel feugiat odio aliquam sed. Cras facilisis, lectus vitae elementum iaculis, dui odio gravida elit, at auctor urna libero eget mi. Cras vel quam vitae velit iaculis aliquam. Aliquam non volutpat nulla. Nulla non ligula massa.  

If you need more, there’s a Lorem Ipsum generator online at

What Went Wrong? The NYT corrects 7 errors in one published article

A surprising number of writing and editing mistakes combined to result in the New York Times publishing an article about Walter Cronkite that contained a whopping seven errors, including incorrect names and dates, among other problems.

When I was in journalism school, we were automatically docked 50% on any assignment that had a name spelled wrong or a date incorrect, since those things are such a huge deal. I once got a failing mark on a story because I’d incorrectly tacked an “e” onto an “Ann.” So for the times to slip up this many times in one piece about a public figure is surprising, to say the least.

Perhaps that’s why their Public Editor has analyzed the situation in an interesting article that you can read here. 

Here’s the short version of what happened:

Even a newspaper like The Times, with layers of editing to ensure accuracy, can go off the rails when communication is poor, individuals do not bear down hard enough, and they make assumptions about what others have done. Five editors read the article at different times, but none subjected it to rigorous fact-checking, even after catching two other errors in it. And three editors combined to cause one of the errors themselves.

It’s an interesting study of the editorial process, and what can go wrong.