The Favras Effect: Why you Should Always Ask Someone Else to Proofread for You

No matter how carefully you proofread your own copy, some quite serious typos can slip through the net. But show the copy to someone else and they spot the errors immediately, even if they merely glance at the text. Usually this person who spots the obvious error with a mere glance is your boss, doubling the embarrassment.

In workshops I often call this the Favras Effect after the French aristocrat Thomas de Mahy, marquis de Favras, who was hanged on 19 February 1790 for being on the wrong side in the French Revolution. Just before he was hanged he was shown his death sentence, glanced at it and observed "Je vois que vous avez fait trois fautes d'ortographe". -- "I see that you have made three spelling mistakes". 

Because of this comment Mahy has since had a reputation for his coolness in difficult circumstances, though it is quite likely that other people in similar situations might also have seen obvious errors that everyone else missed, but either didn't bother to point it out, or they did and nobody recorded it.

Why does this happen? The main reason is that when you read anything the subconscious part of your brain filters what you are reading, often autocorrecting words so that you "see" something that isn't there, or fail to see something that is there. Quite often you will see a surprising word when you read a text but when you read again it has disappeared. Most people also fail when proofreading errors like:

The most common mistake in
in the world.

Failing to see the repeated "in" because part of your brain realizes that this doesn't add anything to the meaning, so it is censored in the version sent to your conscious brain for interpretation. The way to defeat this mechanism, by the way, is to read backwards.  When you read your own copy what makes the reading harder is that you already know what is supposed to be there so your brain corrects any visible errors that appear. This is actually a feature of the brain. If part of a sign is covered by a tree branch your brain can fill in the gaps transparently. This function works so well that we rarely even think about it, but the automatic gap filling and correcting continues all the time.

So what can you do about it? The first rule is to ask someone else to look at anything important and then not look amazed if they see the one error in 2000 words at the first look. This is natural. If you can't do that, then at least leave the text to cool for a time, do something else then come back to it later.

And did Favras really make that snarky comment about the spelling mistakes? The story is repeated in many books about famous quotes but they often copy from each other. As far as I can tell the original source documents are long lost and we have only the retelling of one of the clerks who followed the case. But the story does actually ring true, both because of the explanation above and because Favras was an educated Frenchman. They still do that today. I have lived and worked in France and one time a participant in a management communication workshop that I taught in French returned the handout at the end of the session with some French grammar and spelling corrections. 

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching and Writing

If you like to discuss lectures; interactive workshops, one-to-one coaching or writing about this topic or any other communication issues you can contact Andrew Hennigan at or +46 73 089 44 75.


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