Ken Carbone’s Wonderlust: The Worst Four-Letter Word

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I considered titling this essay, “True Confessions.” The story would begin when the late Linda Tischler, the award-winning editor for Fast Company, asked me to contribute design commentary for the re-launch of their website in 2010. My panicked response to her invitation went something like,“WAIT… write for the magazine? Linda, I CAN’T EVEN SPELL!” Not to be deterred, Linda persuaded me to try it, and with her editorial guidance (and proofreading), I wrote dozens of articles for Fast Company over the years. However, to this day, each time I send an email, report, or thank you note, I do so in fear because of the worst four-letter word in English: TYPO.

Maybe I’m dyslexic, need better glasses, or better with a paintbrush than a pen, but I lose sleep if something I publish contains a typo. I worry that the reader sees this as sloppy work and ineptitude; I know I’m not alone. My typo phobia took root during my first job when I designed a poster for a tennis tournament. The 3” cap headline, in white, on a grassy green background, announced YOUR INVITED! I was royally embarrassed and regretful that the poster needed reprinting. The fact that my boss, the client, nor the printer caught the error provided little comfort, but I then realized spelling mistakes are a shared human foible.

My poster mistake pales in comparison to some historical examples. Review Studio, an online platform for creative collaboration, documents several prominent typos dating back centuries. For example, initially carved into the Lincoln Memorial, FUTURE was misspelled “EUTURE” (now repaired.) Also, years ago, I heard that during a bill signing in the Oval Office, each attending Congressional delegate received a commemorative pen inscribed The UNTIED States of America! I can’t corroborate this tale, but if true, I’m sure that pen is a coveted piece of Presidential history. (See banner image).

From my research, I’ve found that our tendency toward misspellings is widespread. I’m far from the only person who drops the “r” when typing “your” or misuses “it’s” for “its.” In an example worthy of Freudian analysis, I have a hard time with “commitment.” I sometimes wonder if my misspellings are another symptom of aging when memory retention weakens or because I never learned to touch type. This introspection continues to help improve my spelling. Recently, I saw the word “PRACTISE” in a book. Had I cleverly caught a typo? No, the book is published in England, where “PRACTISE” is used as a verb and “PRACTICE” is a noun. Seriously?

Maybe I should master writing “prompts” for ChatGPT and let artificial intelligence take over.

Numerous articles cover our universal spelling problems, offering lists of typos made daily by all of us. In the following video, can you tell how many misspelled words1 flash by?

For someone who places a high value on the beauty of words, as I write this essay, I wonder what typos lurk in the sentences above. I’ll read this over and over. I will read it aloud and even backward to discover a hidden error. I’ll use Siri, spell-check, and Grammarly, but “wood” and its homophone, “would,” can be tricky. Proper grammar? Punctuation? These are additional worries that cause me to question if English is really my first language.

Family and friends know I consider my lousy spelling a personal curse and offer comforting reassurance such as “Don’t worry, Ken, you have other talents.” I appreciate this encouragement and share this goodwill with all of you who want to use SILOHUETTE in a sentence. May we spell it correctly!

Next Month: How to Build a Visual Journal

Ken Carbone is an artist, designer, and Co-Founder of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design company he built with Leslie Smolan over 40 years ago. He is the author of Dialog: What Makes a Great Design Partnership, a visiting lecturer at numerous design schools, and TED X speaker. A recipient of the 2012 AIGA medal, he is currently a Senior Advisor to the Chicago-based strategic branding firm 50,000feet.

Photos and videos courtesy of the author.

Yes, all the words in the video are misspelled. ↩︎

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