In the article “How One Word Nearly Killed the Climate Deal,” The Washington Post covered an instance of how a single typo could have had dire consequences for the entire planet. Literally.
The typo was noticed by U.S. officials as they reviewed the then-final draft of the climate accord only hours before the final vote: The word “should” had been changed to “shall.” Secretary of State John F. Kerry told French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, “Either it changes, or President Obama and the United States will not be able to support this agreement.”
Why such a fuss? The change was made in part of the agreement written in response to the call from small island states and other poorer countries for “loss and damage” compensation from richer countries for the negative financial impact of reducing fossil fuel–burning emissions. The word “should” suggests that this financial compensation is recommended, while the word “shall” indicates that the United States, along with other richer countries, must, under the agreement, provide this financial compensation—an open-ended obligation the Obama administration was not prepared to endorse.
Although there was initial speculation that the change had been intentionally introduced, U.S. and French officials decided that the change had been accidental and could be handled as a normal typo. The change back to “should” was submitted to the full assembly in a list of technical corrections and approved just before the Paris climate agreement was declared adopted.
Such troublesome word pairs plague all. To be fair, for most of us, a mix-up will not affect the course of history—but it could make you look sloppy or foolish. When submitting your master’s dissertation about the depiction of martyrdom in Northern Renaissance painting, don’t distract from your careful research by writing about a “grizzly torture scene,” when you mean “grisly.” You might have your professors scouring for accounts of a saint put to death by grizzly bears. Or more likely rolling their eyes at your error.
But what if you are, say, a journalist writing about a new law that prohibits talking on the phone while driving. You mean to say that the law “proscribes” the practice, but you accidentally leave the typo “prescribe.” Well, now your readers think that the law recommends talking on the phone while driving. Even worse, say you work at a pharmaceutical company and are creating the label of a supplement to be taken twice a month by people with a vitamin deficiency. The supplement hits the shelves with its label saying to take it “bimonthly” instead of “semimonthly.” Those taking the supplement will most likely continue to be deficient, as they’ll be taking it every two months rather than “semimonthly”: twice a month.
Double-checking for such mistakes should not be saved for only formal work. It applies to emails, texts—anything. For example, say you are writing an email to your boss in response to being asked to up your responsibilities. You respond that you are “weary” of taking on more work than you can handle. This might not go over so well, as you are essentially saying you are sick of doing too much work. What you mean is you are “wary”: feeling cautious. You should even double-check purely social messages. A few years ago, my friend and I made plans for me to dye her hair that coming weekend. She sent me a text later that week asking, “Would you be OK with dying on Friday?” I knew she meant “dyeing,” but had she been someone I didn’t know very well, I might have been a bit disturbed.
The bottom line: Double-check that what you say is what you mean.