Defend Truth


COMMA CHAMELEON: Practise safe text. Use a proofreader


Tiara Walters writes for Daily Maverick's climate crisis unit, Our Burning Planet. A recipient of the South African National Parks environmental journalist of the year award, she's written for leading African and international publications for nearly 20 years, including the American Polar Society’s Polar Times, the Lonely Planet Guide to Antarctica and the Sunday Times. She was the first South African woman journalist to oversummer in Antarctica with the South African National Antarctic Programme. In addition to the climate crisis, she has a special interest in the illegal wildlife trade and other global conservation issues, the natural sciences as well as space sciences. Her work in broadcasting includes environmental radio and a stint as field presenter for 50/50, the SABC's long-running conservation television show. She has also contributed widely to the publishing industry as book editor and ghostwriter. Photo:

“You kids are going to wreck my life,” my Grade 3 teacher spits. Spellfire and brimstone, you might say. “All I’m doing these days is playing with red pen in my unpaid overtime.”

A crumpled exercise book flaps in her quivering grip high above our desks, like a bird flailing for escape.

Picturing the many blank pages I’ve gladly filled with arty red pen and other squiggles in my spare time at zero benefit to my piggy bank, my eight-year-old self fails to see what the fuss is about. Also, I like words. And so my dream as a professional matador of mistakes is born: to live a life where you willingly place yourself at the heart of relentless typographical onslaught. If only for the acquired taste of teasing order out of chaos. For being able to exhale, however subjectively, “There. That’s better.” And get paid for it.

After all, words are the currency of the human brain. Both pivotal driver and result of our neurological evolution.

So why, when dressing up your brand, personal or professional, would you create the impression that you did not care about the fineries of your promotional copy?

Perhaps the answer has something to do with the grammatical equivalent of grooming. Few of us ever fantasise about bumping into an old flame with a post-lunch peppercorn wedged into our front teeth, but it happens when you don’t reach for that toothpick.

Ask US President Donald “I have the best words” Trump. If working optimally, his mental floss might have dislodged a salvo of axiomatic peppercorns from his Twitter feed before inflicting them on the public eye.

Last week his press office fudged former First Lady Barbara Bush’s death by exactly 12 months. If future humans were to find this press release, they might assume the Leader of the Free Word (I give you “covfefe”) was so callous he had to post-date approximations of bereavement into his diary. A year after the fact.

Twitter wasn’t kind to Trump. But then, future humans won’t be either.

The science behind our egregious editing habits

Also this month, one Jake Cartwright unleashed another Twitter backlash for mocking a Mancunian teenager’s grasp of English. Nicola Hawkins’ Tinder profile claimed she knew her “your” from her “you’re”, yet listed “not you’re average girl” as her unique selling proposition. It was an intentional joke, the teenager insisted. Even so, during my life as a former Tinderette, many a potential suitor highlighted this very facility in their own profile. As if nailing the difference between “your” and “you’re” is some kind of genuine competitive advantage.

It seems the business-development seminar that promised to help me with my next career move was too busy planning its flexitarian menu to spell-check its typo-riddled intro mail. So I declined.

I’ve also not been able to bring myself to sign up to a psychology course whose leading copy encourages attendees to “uncover their hidden agenda’s” and “guage” their inner shift. Call me a demanding protégé, but I expect more attention to detail from prospective senseis.

Why are we so rubbish at reading?

With the obvious exception of anyone with a genuine reading disability, from the above we may conclude that many of us just don’t know any better.

Look, some people are impossible to please. Syntax, grammar and punctuation are sources of never-ending debate. Em dashes versus en dashes. The generic masculine. Oxford commas. Split infinitives. “You” versus “one”. There will be any number of grammar snobs happy, and rightfully so, to draw angry, red lines around rule violations in this very column. (For example, “never-ending debate”. Hyperbole. Especially since the Sun will swallow the solar system at some point and then there will be no more debate. Unless we humans have populated another solar syst … You see? It actually may not stop.)

I am, however, talking about the apparently easily spotted cardinal sins of the printed word. Confusing “than” and “then” does make you a bit of a “looser”, in Tinder as in life. My favourite? “Overexaggeration.” And, if you wanted to be really annoying, you should say “alot” of the latter.

A recent Guardian Science Weekly podcast offers a more rigorous perspective:

Neuroscientist Cathy Price is an expert in how the human brain processes words. She notes that word recognition uses 99% of the same features as picture processing. When we read, the brain sees the first and last letter. The in-between bits are one big (or small) shape.

The Chameleon’s non-peer-reviewed deduction is that this must make proofreading – the act of seeing individual letters – a learnt skill for which there seems to be increasingly less time these days.

The pudding’s all about the proofreader

I’m not here to stand sentinel as the omnipotent eviscerator of the sin in syntax.

Simply to demonstrate that the world is a place of more beautiful veracity when you listen to the often-soft nudges of proofreaders.

Back in December 2007, I was starting as the subeditor of a national lifestyle publication for which I had written an article about Henry Morton Stanley’s meeting with the wayfaring David Livingstone. In noting the year of the event – 1871 – I chose a conversational “’71” by excluding the number “18”. After receiving a note from the proofreader to “insert the century”, the production controller popped the number “19” into the text instead, effortlessly revising a defining moment in Victorian exploration by precisely a century.

Stan and Dave, long-lost pals and Vietnam War defectors, bro hug on the shores of Lake Tanganyika on November 10, 1971.

All jokes aside, it was Mortonfying. First month in the job. Last time I’d put my byline to a story without seeing the finished product.

The Chameleon’s advice? Read your copy backwards if you can – it refreshes the neurons. Pay particular attention to headings: the ones your grey matter assumes cannot possibly contain typos because you’ve writ them large across the page.

Whether typing up a Tinder profile or political speech, get a gimlet eye to look over your shoulder.


You can’t rule the world if you can’t rule the word. DM

  • For more examples of scandalicious clangers and how to avoid them, visit Comma Chameleon’s launch e-mag here. Submit faux pas here with “BAD COMMA” in the subject line.

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