There! On that sign/menu/flier! It's a mistake!

The human brain has developed a devious shortcut: It sometimes sees what it thinks it sees, not what is really there. Students can hone their ability to spot mistakes by finding typos in the wild - on menus, street signs, advertisements, even the AP Stylebook. Several professors share their approaches.

Les Anderson | Wichita State University

I have an assignment where students must find typos, misspellings, incorrect grammar, AP style errors on signs around town. That makes them pay more attention to editing.

I constantly have former students e-mail or send me editing errors for use in class based on that exercise.

One of the best a few years ago was from a student who drove past a store on her way to work in another city. The name of the store was Mega Flicks. Unfortunately, the sign was in all caps and the kerning was a little too much between the "l" and the "I," resulting in what looked at a glance more like some sort of porno shop.

Deborah Gump

I send students on a course-long scavenger hunt. I tell them that the world insults us daily with bad spelling, lousy grammar and misused punctuation. (See some examples at left.) And if they track down examples of these insults and bring me their rotting carcasses, I'll add a quarter-point to their final grade for each example, for a total of one point.

The offer does not extend to newspapers, magazines or news Web sites; sites owned by nonjournalism companies are allowed. When students object to this exception, I tell them that finding mistakes in publications that publish thousands of words every day is like shooting fish in a barrel. I want them to look for the errors that assault us daily in public places, created by people just like them who needed to take a few extra minutes to double-check their work.

One exception to the no-news publication rule: Extra credit is given for really, really, really bad headlines, graphics or layouts in out-of-town publications. The caveat with this option is that I am the final arbiter of whether the example warrants the extra credit. Here's an example of a worthy headline: When Hurricane Bonnie was bearing down on North Carolina a few years ago, the editor of the newspaper in the town of Clinton wrote this lead headline: Bonnie Blows Clinton.

Students must bring the document with the error to class; they are told to exercise judgment on whether the offending document can just be taken, such as a flier, or whether permission needs to be sought, such as a menu. If the mistake is on an object is too big or belongs to somebody else, I accept a photo (digital, snapshot, Polaroid). Each example can be found only once.

I also give students the same extra credit if they find mistakes that I make on handouts, such as the syllabus, or the class Blackboard site. I spent a few years as an adjunct, working in the newsroom until after midnight, going home to work on class assignments, and then heading to class the next morning worried that my handouts would contain an exhaustion-induced typo. So to avoid an ulcer, I turned my class into my slot; if nothing else, the possibility of extra credit gives them incentive to read what I give them - and read it quickly because only the student who finds a mistake first gets the extra credit.

Typos in the wild examples at left

Kathy Olson | Lehigh University

I have found it a fun break in the routine of my editing class to play "Stop the Presses," a game I played when I was the world's oldest Dow Jones copy editing intern (so full credit goes to them). Then, teams of four got a full-sized copy of a newspaper page and had to find the egregious error that, while not necessarily rising to the level of something that would actually cause the presses to be stopped, was embarrassing enough that it needed to be fixed.

For my class, I photocopy as much of the page as I can get on a regular piece of paper and staple the pages together into booklets. In teams of two, the students turn each page on my "go" and whoever finds the error first yells "Stop the presses!" If correct, the members of their team each get a point toward their overall current events quiz grades, which generally need the help. Mistakes are NOT subtle matters of AP style or punctuation but stuff that makes you groan when you see it in the paper - people's names misspelled in the headline or people obviously misidentified in the cutline, etc.

I save the local paper when I find such mistakes to use for this exercise so I always have an up-to-date supply.

"Stop the presses!" example at left

Charlyne Berens | University of Nebraska

I collect real errors from all kinds of publications and put them on overheads and in PowerPoint (without identifying the publication). Every so often during the semester, we have a contest and divide the class into two teams to figure out "What's wrong here?" Winners get a rousing cheer or, once in a while, a Hershey's kiss.

Actually, I've found kids really like to compete, and even blase 18- and 19-year-olds get into the spirit of a game at the drop of a hat.

Michael A. Longinow | Biola University

Have students find errors in the local daily and talk, in groups, about what they found. The sleuthing process is a stimulant to helping them see the vulnerabilities of the professionals out there.

Rather than giving the students cynicism, it tends to give them hope that they can make it as a pro, albeit at a smaller publication. It's a great way to "break the ice" for students who either don't think publications matter (because they don't read enough) or because they're so intimidated by a career entry that they think print media are impenetrably perfect.

Amanda Sturgill | Baylor University

I write a page of the unpleasant policies on the syllabus with numerous errors for the students to find. The students spend 20 minutes the first day of class editing that page, and we discuss and categorize the errors. I then make them sign the page as an agreement to the policies. I keep it for the rest of the semester. I will be glad to send a copy to anyone who wants one.

Beverly Horvit | Texas Christian University

I give five points extra credit on minor assignments (quizzes & homework) for finding mistakes - whether spelling, grammatical, style or factual - in published material.

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