Why you miss your biggest typos

Woman with her hand on her head in exasperationHave you ever missed an obvious typo and wondered how?

Maybe it was even in a title in bold, 24-point type. Or perhaps you overlooked a howler in a PowerPoint deck until you were presenting on Zoom.

Don’t worry – it’s not just you. We’ve all done it. In fact, I’m slightly terrified that I’ll make a slip-up myself as I type this.

Thankfully, the consequences of these mistakes are often no more severe than the need to mumble an embarrassed apology.

But sometimes even tiny typos can have big consequences.

Pacific Bell, for instance, once found itself in hot water after getting just one letter wrong in a phone directory advert. The ad was supposed to have been promoting ‘exotic’ vacations, but the company printed an ‘r’ in place of an ‘x’.

The travel agent who’d paid for the ad was not amused. She claimed the error had scared off half her elderly customers and attracted countless calls from a quite different market demographic. She sued for 10 million dollars.

Understanding why we make these mistakes is the key not just to saving our blushes but to becoming much better communicators altogether.

And it all comes down to how we really read.

Narrow focus

Take this email, for example. Right now, it probably feels like you’re reading each sentence in one smooth flow. But that’s just an illusion.

In reality, your eyes are quickly focusing and refocusing on fragments of text in a series of jerky movements. And your area of focus is incredibly narrow.

To see what I mean, just stop for a moment and focus on these three words. Really focus, so that all the words are as sharp as a pin.

Now focus just on the middle word (‘three’). Do you notice how the other two words keep drifting in and out of focus?

That’s because the focal point in each of your eyes (the fovea) only has room for around seven to nine letters.

All a blur

So all the other words in the line and the rest of the paragraph will be a blur.

And that’s just at this type size. The bigger the letters, the less room there is for them in that fine focal point on your retina.

So you’re more likely to
to miss mistakes when
they’re in big type.

Well done if you spotted the extra ‘to’ above, for example – most people will have missed it for that very reason.

So where does the rest of the text we see come from? We make it up.

Yes, I know that’s hard to believe, but it’s true.

Wishful thinking

Researchers first discovered this by using special software to change what volunteers saw when reading an onscreen passage of text.

The app displayed the words in a narrow window that moved to match wherever they were focusing. But it replaced everything else with x’s.

Astonishingly, the volunteers could still read the whole passage as long as the correct letters were in their field of fine focus as their eyes scanned the screen.

Not only that, but they didn’t suspect a thing. They thought the screen was showing the whole passage at once.

Predicting, not reading

In reality, most of what we think of as ‘reading’ is just prediction and hallucination. (Otherwise even a simple text message would take forever to process.)

Ideally, our brain corrects its predictions if they’re wrong. But it’s often so confident in them that it’s blind to what’s right in front of our eyes.

Is it any wonder we miss the odd typo from time to time?


How to spot mistakes

To save your blushes, my colleague Catie Holdridge has produced a complete guide to proofreading anything you write.

It shows you exactly how to spot the errors that most often slip through and even includes a downloadable proofreading checklist.

As with everything else in our Knowledge Hub, it’s free to access.

Remember too that we’re on hand whenever you need direct help, through our expert-led courses and coaching. Just see Quick links below.

And here’s a link to the original research paper on the moving window experiment. It was published way back in 1975, yet even today few people realise the truth about how we really read.


Image credit: dmvasilenko / Shutterstock