Proof negative

March 27, 2015

Seven proofreading disasters, and what to learn from them

Image: Shutterstock


Over at Managing Partner, an article cautions against taking a cavalier approach to proofreading. Citing some slightly alarming research by LexisNexis, it suggested that in a random sample of supposedly proofread legal docs, 90% contained errors.

Going on to survey more than 100 UK law firms, LexisNexis found that two-thirds of lawyers felt time pressures prevented perfect proofing (and almost certainly alliterative flourishes *ahem*), with a further third owning up to skipping proofreading altogether.

Any practitioner will recognise the dilemma. Faced with deadlines hurtling malevolently in your direction, agonising over the placement of a semi-colon or the correct deployment of the gerund seems hardly worth the candle.

Those feeling a little guilt-laden should console themselves by considering William Caxton, of ‘invented the printing press unless you ask a German about it’ fame, who declared himself so dreadful at spelling that he begged his readers to “correcte and amende where they shal fynde faulte.”

Nonetheless, an eye for detail on the printed page can be the difference between triumph and disaster, as these cautionary tales demonstrate.

The £8.8 million letter ‘S’

We begin with the sad tale of the decline of a long-standing family engineering business. When the boss of 124-year old Welsh firm Taylor & Sons went on holiday, he was a little alarmed to find himself receiving outraged calls from clients demanding to know how on earth he could flee the country, leaving a catastrophe behind.

But rumours of the company’s collapse turned out to be not only premature, but downright egregious: some dolt at Companies House, intending to record that a certain Taylor & Son had entered liquidation, used a letter ‘s’ where none was required. In doing so, Taylor & Sons – a thriving concern with 250 employees – was subject to a kind of catastrophic Chinese Whispers. No amount of reassurance could persuade alarmed clients that all was well, and within five years the prophetic typo came to pass, and the company folded.

Not unreasonably, Taylor & Sons sued Companies House, and have been awarded £8.8 million in compensation. Quite the expensive letter, eh?

Hanged on a comma

Roger Casement is an object of considerable romance, speculation and tragedy. A diplomat, poet, human rights activist and handsome devil, he came a cropper when, during the Great War, he tried to secure German support for an armed uprising in Ireland.

There is much in the tale of Roger Casement that would make any novelist deplore their lack of imagination. After his arrest for treason, his homosexuality became a weapon in the government’s campaign against him, and excerpts from his infamous Black Diaries were circulated to foment public distaste.

Perhaps the most strange aspect of this remarkably eventful life is that its final chapter is notable as much for a question of punctuation as of high treason. The issue at trial was whether the law regarding treason applied to acts abroad.  The answer appeared to lie in the placement of a pair of commas, and so puzzled counsel that judges sent for the original manuscript (written, unhelpfully, in Norman French). There they espied markings which they interpreted as commas, a decision leading to the hangman’s rope.

So it is said that Sir Roger Casement was ‘hanged on a comma’ – something to bear in mind when taking a cavalier approach to punctuation.

Robbed of justice?

In an altogether less glamorous but nonetheless interesting incident, the Appeal Court recently considered an appeal against conviction which rested on a rather negligent bit of proofreading (R v Clarke [2015] EWCA Crim 350, for the enthusiast).

When a certain ne’er-do-well was convicted of conspiracy to rob, the indictment stated that he had conspired ‘to rob a dwelling and business’. Since the offence of robbery requires that an individual be subject to unlawful force or put in fear, the indictment is incorrect: a door may be alarmed (I thank you), but a dwelling cannot be in fear.

The judges threw out the appeal, since there could have been no doubt as to the prosecution’s intent – but that a poor bit of drafting landed a case at the Appeal Court is rather a sobering thought.

The Wicked Bible

Nothing’s going to make you pay attention to detail like the prospect of incurring the Almighty’s displeasure, amirite?

But what with the Bible being 774,746 words long, it’s not altogether surprising that the odd typo has slipped through the net over the years.

The best of these is to be found in the (in)famous Wicked Bible of 1632, when the lustier reader must have been delighted to be instructed by the seventh commandment: “Thou shalt commit adultery.” An appalled Parliament acted swiftly, fining the printer and ordering all copies to be destroyed.

Nor was this the last Bible to fall foul of a weary typesetter: a 1795 edition declared ‘Let the children first be killed’ (rather than the more good-natured ‘filled’), and swiftly became known as the ‘Murderer’s Bible’.

Cooking up a storm

One almost hesitates to mention this incident, since it is unwittingly breathtakingly offensive – but we include it here in order to demonstrate just quite how bad the effects of a typo can be.

The Australian branch of Penguin Group publishing recently had to destroy and reprint a popular cookbook at a cost of $18, 500 because of a spectacularly shocking error: a recipe for pasta called for ‘salt and freshly ground black people’.

Now excuse me while I visit a chiropodist in order to have my toes surgically uncurled.

Lost in translation

Ever wondered why Moses is persistently portrayed sporting a pair of horns? I’ll be honest with you chaps: no, me neither.

However, this trope was a popular one in medieval and renaissance art, and all comes down to a bit of mistranslation – something that will echo only too loudly with anyone who has tried to secure a court interpreter at the last minute.

Having secured the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, what we might consider the very first legal practitioner (if we’re really prepared to stretch a point) descended with a head shrouded in ‘radiance’. The Hebrew word for radiance is ‘karan’, but St Jerome (presumably extremely tired and juggling numerous deadlines) misread it is ‘keren’, meaning ‘horned’.

Now, any good proofreader will tell you that if a sentence seems nonsensical, then something is bound to be awry. But Jerome just pressed right on with his mistake, leading to centuries of portrayals of poor Moses not beaming with the satisfaction of a job well done, but instead sporting a pair of Hellboy-style horns.

If it sounds too good to be true…

Pity the poor JP Morgan employee (not a sentence with which I am comfortable, I admit) who was lured from his secure job in the States over to South Africa by a truly generous salary package of 24 million rand. This being around 3 million dollars, one can imagine the scale of the leaving party, the Armani spree, and the champagne supped on the flight to Cape Town.

Alas, it turns out that some poor soul in HR had been having a bit of an off day on the accuracy front, and misplaced a decimal point. The salary advertised should have been a mere 240,000 rand, which the astute mathematician will correctly deduce to be 1% of what he imaged he was in for.

An attempt to sue was unsuccessful. The fate of the HR administrator is not known. SP

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