I received an interesting request last week from one of my colleagues:

“Please provide an update on the [gene name] ozone OCD”.

The email in question was sent to me, several other colleagues, and some of our external collaborators. The tell-tale “sent from my iPhone” text at the bottom pointed to an autocorrect error, but none of us had any idea what the original request might have been. This was therefore a clear-cut case of having to draw the sender’s attention to the error in order to fulfill the request; the PI replied with “how isogenic lines was changed to ozone OCD is a mystery to me“, and the problem was solved with much hilarity all around.

A more ambiguous situation arose a few hours later. As often happens, I needed to reply to a mass email – again, sent to external collaborators as well as internal staff – that included a glaring typo in the subject heading. As much as I loathe to send anything out in my name with an error in it, I decided (after much deliberation) not to correct it, thinking that a correction might draw extra attention to my colleague’s mistake.

As I said, this happens quite often: I work with a lot of busy, multi-tasking people who send hasty emails from iPhones and Blackberries – or just in a rush from their desk while simultaneously on a teleconference call, eating lunch, and/or reading a draft manuscript. If I’m the only recipient I just ignore the mistake, but if there’s a big group involved – especially if it includes external contacts or other big-wigs – and/or if the conversation looks likely to run and run, with multiple people sending replies, I find it very hard not to correct the typo.

Now, I’m paid to be anal about typos. It’s a big part of my job to clean up manuscripts, grants, progress reports, press releases, websites, and other pieces before they’re sent out into the wild to fend for themselves. However, it’s a big part of my personality to not be rude to people, especially my superiors at work. I’m also a chronic over-thinker. So I decided to seek input from the home of lots of other over-thinking editor types – Twitter!

I sent out the following tweet:

Etiquette question: do you correct typos in email subject lines when you reply to them, or is that a passive-aggressive douchebag move?

and received quite the response!

(NB: any typos in quoted text are from the original tweets :D)

On the pro-correction side, people said:

  • “Yes. Chances are they won’t notice, but it’ll make you feel better.”
  • “That’s the kind of decision that would keep me up at night. I think correcting the typo is ok though… :s”
  • “I correct typos/mistakes in subject lines of emails all the time — just because I’m obsessive like that.” followed by “If the email is going out to a whole group, I figure I’m doing the original sender a favor ….”
  • “passive aggressive – maybe, bad etiquette/douchebaggy – no.”
  • “I don’t see that as an “or” question. My answers are “yes” and “yes.” :)” (tweeter subsequently admitted that the answer to the question “and do you care?” is “no!”)
  • “I’d rather be perceived as passive-aggressive, thus I’d correct subject line”
  • “I would correct it. The other person may not even notice that it got corrected if they let such an egregious error pass.”
  • “I even correct tweets I RT. I dunno about “passive aggressive”. I think of it as being “kind and helpful” ;)”

On the “OMG, what is WRONG with you?!” side, people said:

  • “I’m not sure if this is the right answer but I would let it go.” followed by “I suppose if it is being circulated, it wouldn’t have been too douchey.”
  • “no, because it breaks gmail’s conversation feature if the subject changes. I think. I would change it before fwd though” (NB: I would never, ever, correct a typo in a friend’s email subject heading – and I only use Gmail for friends’ emails! I’m talking about work emails, in Outlook).
  • “The real questions are, of course, would they notice? & more importantly would you want them to notice?#ThinkingTooMuch
  • “I pretend I didn’t notice/read the title”
  • “passive aggressive and retentive my dear.” followed by “i know but its an email and i don’t know, it just seems anal…mind you I have people proof read important emails.”

Many thanks to everyone who provided input!

So, Oh Wise Occam’s Readers… what do you think?!

(p.s. I’ve checked this post for typos several times, but I just KNOW there’s going to be one in there that I’ve missed!)

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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8 Responses to Typo-chondria

  1. I think it depends in part on the nature of the relationship with the person. If it was someone who I was comfortable with AND it actually made a difference in the meaning of the sentence (like I wouldn’t necessarily correct a “teh” as “the” or something) I would do it. If it was a big wig and I didn’t know them well, I probably wouldn’t correct it unless it was important. I mean, we all know typos are made and that it does not necessarily reflect anything all that important about a person, particularly when it comes to emails. Alas, we are all only human, all too human…

  2. Fantastic… now I can torment myself with indecision knowing that there will be people who think I’m evil for correcting the subject line AND people who will think I’m an idiot for not correcting it! (-:

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    What a disappointment– and here I thought you would be discussing one of my favorite subjects–hypochondria. What with my sore shoulder and neck stiff from typing, and these new birthmarks on the back of my left ear…

  4. bean-mom says:

    I’d leave it alone UNLESS the typo was one which would seriously change the meaning of the e-mail and had the potential to cause mass confusion. And in that case, I’d send a gentle query to the original writer (Dr. Bad Speller, did you mean to write “Gene Aardvark” instead of “Gene Armadillo”?) But a simple annoying typo/misspelling? I confess that I’d find the sneaky correction a bit on the passive-aggressive side… (even though I myself have passive-aggressive tendencies!)

    Chances are, though, that the original sender would probably never even notice your correction.

  5. cromercrox says:

    Is the word ‘douchebag’ even allowed on OT? Just wondering.

  6. ricardipus says:

    My gut response is that you should leave the typo alone. All kinds of otherwise respectable people, even me, make typographical errors once in a while, and it doesn’t kill us to have them propagated.

    However, if you feel it might kill *you* to leave it there, then by all means go ahead and fix it. 😉

  7. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Hmm, the “no” votes seem to be stacking up! I fear Anthony is spot-on with his summary of the responses…

    Funk Doctor X, welcome to the blog! Yeah, I’d be much more tempted to fix a typo that changes the meaning of the phrase, or one made by someone I know well.

    Steve, sounds like you need to write your own post about that!

    Bean-Mom, yeah, I doubt the most frequent culprits would notice, but you never know! I’ll probably keep not correcting typos unless there are particularly strong reasons to fix the title!

    Cromercrox, well I haven’t been locked out or struck by lightning or anything, so I’m assuming it’s fine.

    Ricardipus, all kinds of otherwise respectable people have also hired me to fix their typos 🙂 But I take your point!

  8. MGG says:

    I received an email that was copied to me, in which a former colleague (now in China) asks a collaborator, this question:

    “Where are you from body?”

    And he replies

    “I am from San Francisco”.

    My guess is that the autocorrect changed “budy” to “body”

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