About eight years ago, I was managing digital communications at a liberal arts college that was preparing for a ceremony to install its new president. Now, there is a word in English that is used for this kind of ceremony, and it’s one of those words that can be tricky to spell. Every time I had to type this word, I sounded out the spelling in my head, and my colleagues were equally careful. Despite our care, we mailed out hundreds of beautifully designed cards inviting recipients to attend the “inuguration” of our new president.
In retrospect, it was clear that the placement of this text on the front of the invitation card, and the ornate typography used in the design, allowed this error to slip by everyone who reviewed and approved the material before it was sent. But it certainly highlights the importance of carefully proofreading everything before it is shared with the intended audience.
Working primarily with web content, I might seem to have an advantage over my print colleagues in being able to quickly correct any mistakes once they are discovered. While this is true, it is still embarrassing to have someone call these errors to my attention -- more so when it is an irate alumnus who feels compelled to lecture me about the importance of proper writing and editing. It is also the case that the nature of web content can lend itself to more mistakes. We tend to add or update content quickly, with the thought that it can always be changed later, and some of the text (such as page titles and meta tags) does not appear on the page itself, requiring an extra effort to make sure it is correct.
With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to look for some common errors on higher education websites (clearly, I don’t get out much). Using quotes to search for misspellings and restricting searches to .edu websites brought back some interesting results.
That tricky word “inuguration” only returned 101 results. In some cases, it ended up in the URL (.edu/inuguration-week/, for example). This may indicate that when a new president or chancellor is paying attention, fewer mistakes are made.
A more common typo involves dropping the letter “l” from the word “public.” So when I search for “pubic safety,” I find nearly 1,000 results from a wide range of colleges and universities. The error occurs in URLs, page titles and content on the page, with students being urged to “contact the pubic safety department” for assistance. Strangely, there was also an ad in the search results (for a broadband network company), which I believe indicates that someone actually bought the search term “pubic safety” for their ad. Whether this was intentional or a typo itself is not clear.
“Pubic information” returned 397 results for what appear to be public information offices and staff. “Pubic affairs” was a bit more widespread, with 800 results. One of these results was not, in fact, a typo but a news story about a printed commencement program that mistakenly included the heading “Lyndon B. Johnson School of Pubic Affairs.” Please keep your snide comments about our 36th president to yourself.
Moving on from these salacious examples, I tried some other higher education misspellings. Searching “registar” in lieu of “registrar” returned an amazing 28,500 results. I’m not sure if this reflects the low esteem in which these officials are held, or an upgrade to “star” status. One large university actually had a program called “RegiSTARS” to recognize the work of the staff in the registrar’s office.
Searching for “burser” instead of “bursar” didn’t work; apparently there are some names using that spelling, including German botanist Joachim Burser and the plants bearing his name. “Burser’s office” did return 47 results compared with 158,000 for the correct spelling.
The examples go on. One school invited people to “Lunch with the Provest,” while another provided inspiration with “The Presdent’s Message.” There were over 15,000 results for “libary,” 13,000 for “pyschology” and almost 22,000 for “mathmatics.”
The point here is not to shame any of my colleagues, who have gone unnamed in the hope that they will return the favor and not dig up mistakes for which I might be responsible. It simply highlights how typos can pop up in fast-paced communications environments. Spell check and autocorrect can lead us to be less attentive, while content-management systems and other web editing tools can let errors slip by.
So my advice, which I believe I’m obligated to offer in this column, is to proofread everything. Read over the content of a webpage before you post it, but also check the URL, the title in the browser tab and even the meta tags hidden in the source. Make sure your alt tags and other accessibility features are correct. And for my print colleagues, check the cover of a publication, the text on an envelope and the front of an invitation. Especially if you have a presdential inuguration coming up.
Paul Dempsey manages web and email communications for Drexel University’s College of Engineering. He has worked in higher education marketing and communications for over 20 years.