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Last typo standing

An open letter to the one that got away.

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Dear typo,


You win. You always win.

No matter what we writers do; no matter how many times we scrutinize our final drafts, you always manage to sneak into the published version of our books, essays, articles, emails…You even managed to weasel (or is it wheedle?!) your way into a cover letter I once sent, applying for a position as a copy editor. Oh, the irony! (Or is that the wrong use of the word?!)

I have to give you credit. Most publishers employ (yes, employ, not employee! Stop messing with my head!) not one but two lines of defense to prevent you from slipping into our subheads and sentences. You are up against trained copy editors who not only scrutinize our work for misspellings but also mistakes in word choice, style, and punctuation. Then, after the copy editors give it their all, you are pitted against proofreaders whose entire raison d’etre is to smoke you out of our typeset manuscripts before they are released to the printer.

I was sure, so very sure, that you had met your match with the copy editor of my last book. She eats words like “convalesce” and “paraphernalia” for breakfast. Do not get her started on the eight levels of adjective placement. You should have seen her reaction to my lingering confusion between “uninterested” and “disinterested.” (Picture the prom scene in Carrie.) And then there was the infamous “chipotle” incident. Or as that restaurant where I took her out for a drink listed it on its menu: “chipolte.” Suffice it to say, my copy editor won’t be invited back to Open Mic night.

Anyway, you know the type. Yet even this woman proved no match for the likes of you, as evidenced on page 92 of my 278-page book, where the word altar blazed from the sixth line in the third paragraph. Of course, if I had been describing a scene with communion services, or even a human sacrifice, this might not have been a problem. But given I was describing how someone might want to alter his life, as in change it in small but significant ways, this proved an embarrassing gaffe.


How do you do it? Where do you hide as we pore (or is it pour?!) over our work? Is there a secret portal in the headers or margins of our manuscripts where you and your besties hole up and party while we read aloud each word of our printed-out text from front to back; then from back to beginning (after…ever…happily…lived…)?

Done! Or so we think, after proofing our manuscript for the gazillionth time. (Yes, that is a real number, not a typo, trust me.) Time passes. Our work hits the shelves. We eagerly crack open the spine to a random page…

“Yoo-hoo, doll!” You wave to us and do a little tap dance, though your theatrics are hardly necessary. In fact, from this point forward it is impossible not to see you every time we revisit our published works that were meant to reflect our scholarship, our literary acumen, or at least that one clever idea on which we had pinned all our hopes. Hey, Typo, didn’t your mother ever tell you it’s not nice to gloat?


And so it has come to this. Because we writers are mere mortals, and clearly no match for your wiles, we have more lately turned to artificial intelligence and algorithms to help thwart your efforts. How foolish of us, to think software like autocorrect could save us. Clearly, you have had autocorrect in your pocket since the day this presumptive data validation function (as if) was released into the world. I see your influence in every one of its weirdo text replacements that aren’t just misguided but often mortifying. Do me a favor, Typo, the next time you two get together, please pass along this message from me: Frankly, autocorrect, I’m getting a bit tired of your shirt.

“Write online with confidence!” Here, I know that you know that I am quoting Grammarly, one of your most recent adversaries, an AI-powered app that promises to check our work for hundreds of common and advanced editorial errors. (Subject-verb agreement! Wordiness! Irregular verb conjugations! Plagiarism!) Yeah, right. I think you see Grammarly as Batman to your Joker. Sure, Batman is smart and obsessive and renowned as the Dark Knight, but he doesn’t have any real superpowers and – holy irreproachaboly! – with that moral code of his, everyone knows that he can’t take a Joker.

(Get it? Joke…Joker. Well, I think it’s funny. Or will readers think it’s just another typo?!)


I am sure all of the frustration you cause writers is funny to you. I am sure you have been laughing at your clever antics for a long, long time, as far back as 1621, for example, when you insinuated yourself into the Bible no less, so that the text of one of the Ten Commandments read Thou shalt commit adultery. Help me understand, what part of adultery is funny? Similarly, where is the humor in this other example of omission, in which a story about war crimes proclaimed: We must repeat these atrocities. And what about the trick you played on the poor Reverend Robert Forby in 1830, whose scholarly work The Vocabulary of East Anglia opened with this heading: Peeface. (OK, that one is a little bit funny.)

Speaking from personal experience, I must warn you that sometimes you go too far. Maybe writers should learn to laugh off some of the mistakes and misprints that inevitably show up in our work, but not when it comes to our good names. For instance, I failed to see any humor when I looked at a published piece of mine and discovered that my hard work was credited to a “Jon B. Cole.” That’s right, Jon B. Cole, which is not my first name and never has been. So, dear Typo, the next time you are thinking about playing around with a writer’s words, just remember this: It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an i.



 Joni B. Cole



—Joni B. Cole is the author of the acclaimed book Good Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier. She teaches creative writing at various MFA programs, conferences, and social service programs and is the founder of the Writer’s Center of White River Junction, Vermont. For more info, visit