Diagramming parts of a sentence or learning about split infinitives when studying grammar in English class was about as interesting to me as watching paint dry on a barn door. I lost attention in that class, and my grades probably reflected it. Like many students, I doubted I was ever going to spend my future workday analyzing or let alone critiquing the English language. That was going to be too pedestrian for the life I was going to lead, I reasoned. I didn’t believe I needed to learn much about syntax, grammar, punctuation or spelling.
Boy, was I wrong. After one semester in social work grad school in Boston, including s research methods course with Sophie Loewenstein Freud , I dropped out, but soon landed on my feet, working in marketing communications in a high tech computer firm, Data General. My first project was writing and producing a 120 page four color computer products catalog. I found myself proofing tens of thousands of words, and hundreds of product descriptions, weights and prices, and correcting spelling for those whom I reported to or worked alongside. I found that product managers and programmers weren’t as a general rule, proficient at spelling.
According to Wikipedia, the first spell checker for PCs appeared in 1980, but I started in catalog marketing at Data General in 1978. It was drudgery checking spelling by hand. Later automated spell checkers became a welcome part of my toolset, but even the sophisticated ones embedded in word processing software weren’t perfect. They provide false security, really. For example: “there”, “their”, and “they’re”. While copyediting, one has to understand the context of the copy to ensure the correct word is used so as to not make embarrassing mistakes.
But proofreading today is no better than it was decades ago. Some say e-mail and the proliferation of online communications and heavier workloads has actually made it worse. There’s a lack of attention to quality written communications.
It’s not uncommon to see spelling errors in advertisements, direct mail, hand written signs and billboards too.
Am I expecting too much from the public? I can’t blame our Tweeter in Chief with the problem because spelling problems started many decades before he showed his inability to correctly spell place names:
On March 19, 2016 he tweeted “Heading to Phoneix. Will be arriving soon.”
There are numerous other examples found in everyday life:
A plaque at a school: “Your the best teacher ever”
The sign on an office door: “Executive Bored Room”
A tattoo on the inside of a person’s forearm that reads: “No regerts”
One of my favorites, a sign at a restaurant: “No smoking aloud”.
So earlier this month when I received an email solicitation from a Boston talent agency seeking “BOSTON HEROS”, specifically nurses, firemen policemen, cooks, teachers, cab drivers, and others including “non-prophets” for a TV commercial that paid $350, I was appalled.
In order to qualify for this opportunity, the sender requested a headshot and a brief explanation of qualifications to be sent in a reply.
Though retired, and living outside of Boston, I had an idea, and I replied.
Along with the headshot, I sent an explanation that I was a “professional proofreader” and felt obligated to respond as if I were a “proofreading policeman” . Spelling errors were not fitting to a professional casting company.
The next day I received a response and was told to stop by between 11:30am-3:30pm on Monday or Tuesday for a camera shot. I proceeded to cancel a scheduled dental appointment. I had to act with my priorities in mind. This was my chance to break into stardom.
I arrived at the agency at the agreed time, filled out my contact information on a including my shirt, suit and shoe size and patiently sat on a wooden bench, waiting to be called, to make it big in the film industry! While waiting, and to stay loose, I chatted with a young man half my age sitting next to me about his experiences. He had been in two commercials and had attended acting school. I had arrived, I figured.
The door to my right opened, and a middle-aged woman welcomed me and showed me where to sit in front of the camera, which looked a lot like the camera used at the Registry of Motor Vehicles to take your picture for your drivers license. I was expecting something else, maybe even a Key Grip to set the lighting properly.
“Stand behind the grey tape on the floor, in front of the two black chairs, and then sit down and state your name and your profession”.
“Richard Halpern. I’m retired actually, but am a professional spell checker. I received your solicitation online, and had to respond, pointing out that you misspelled “Heroes”. It’s not “Heros: H-E-R-O-S”. It’s spelled with an “E”. Smiling, I said, “if you’re going to be a professional casting firm you have to look the part and spell right”, I smiled again.
“OK. Wait. Stop. I’ve got to get Melissa. She’s the one who wrote the ad, and she should hear this.”
Melissa, the Casting Associate, a pretty young woman with dark hair and dressed in black, entered the room, which was lined with framed movie posters none of which were academy Award winners, but some were notables like “Patriots Day” starring Mark Wahlberg and Kevin Bacon, and numerous Netflix shows like “The Society” and Showtime’s “SMILF”. “The Society” was filmed throughout Massachusetts, in towns like Concord and Carlisle. Scenes were familiar to me.
The camera woman started again: “What’s your name?”
I repeated myself word for word: “Richard Halpern”. I’m retired but I’m a professional spell checker. I saw your email and had to respond, pointing out that you misspelled “Heroes”. It’s not “Heros” H-E-R-O-S, it’s HEROES. It’s spelled with an “E”.
“And then I saw another misspelling. Non profit was spelled “non prophet”. Ouch!
Melissa said, “I should run future solicitations by you”, and I said, “Sure, that’s agreeable”. “Thank you” said the camera person.
I was on a roll. More than just my basic information, we had a dialogue going. And then it stopped.
“Did I get the part?” I asked.
Melissa said it wasn’t clear until they had seen all the candidates. As I left, another young woman gave me another sheet and I was told to fill out the Agency Pro Talent profile and get in the database, and I would be called if they needed me.
That was two weeks ago and I haven’t heard anything, even though I filled out more personal information for the agency database.
The next day, a new email was sent by Melissa. She had corrected the headline with the proper spelling of “HEROES” and “non-profit”. She hadn’t sent it to me for proofreading, but it looked good. I had made an impact, improving the language of online communications, but perusal of the whole ad made me satisfied for only a minute or two. There was still a problem. The teaser in the body of the email itself had the same spelling errors.
Oh well. Half a win is better than no win. I know from many years in direct marketing and online communications that it takes time to raise awareness and make behavioral changes.
I decided not to send a reply to Melissa. I held back, refraining from lodging a complaint or a correction, for I may be a rising star now that I was asked to include more personal information and another headshot into the agency database.
I reasoned it’s just a matter of thyme before I’m aloud to be herd and scene by the pubic.