Typo or ignorance?

August 16, 2012|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

On Facebook, Paul Lagasse posed this question: "Okay, my editorial friends, please help me settle a bar bet. Is using the wrong spelling of a word (e.g., 'principle' instead of 'principal') considered a typo? Or does the term 'typo' not include such errors?"

As is my custom, I gave him an "it depends" answer (Not a good idea to ask me to settle bar bets): "If the person doesn't know the distinction, it's an error of ignorance. If the person does know the distinction, it's a typo."

The plethora of homonyms in English is a hazard for writers. They come in two flavors. Homographs are spelled the same but pronounced differently: lead (n.) and lead (v.). Homophones are pronounced alike but spelled differently: lead (n.) and led (v.).

My students at Loyola, who are inexperienced writers, sometimes have to be instructed about distinctions among homonyms. Their mistakes are made out of ignorance, which is corrigible. But they also know many of the distinctions and just make a mechanical mistake, a typo, a spelling error.

The principal/principle error that prompted the dispute in the bar and Mr. Lagasse's query appeared in Esquire, which prompted a certain amount of somber head-shaking about the Decline of the West.

Writing some time back at Throw Grammar From the Train, Jan Freeman (heed her, heed her), argued that in our "alarmist hyperbole" we tend to make too much of such mistakes, which are fundamentally spelling errors rather than errors of grammar. Writing of the common it's/its mistake, she writes: 

"You're saying the writer doesn’t know the difference between the actual words its and it’s? That he mistakenly writes 'it’s tires are flat' because he thinks it's OK to say “it is tires are flat”? Of course you don’t think that. Sometimes a mixup -- reign in for rein in -- could be either a simple spelling goof or a genuine confusion (resulting in an eggcornish reinterpretation of the metaphor). Not so with its and it’s. We could drop the apostrophe entirely and we’d still know which was which, because in fact we don't confuse them grammatically."

In fact, and no hiding in the back of the room, who among you can say that they have never, ever typed it's for its?* I have, and so have you. We have those words as patterns in the brain, and sometimes the wrong neuron fires, producing the equivalent of an auto-correct mistake. But since such errors are easy to spot, they are easy to inflate into hand-wringing about ignorance and faulty education.

The problem is not that the writer of the Esquire article made the mistake; we make those mistakes all the time. It is that no editor caught and corrected it before publication. That, too, is an easy mistake, because all of us who are experienced readers have word and phrase and syntax patterns in our heads, and we tend to auto-correct while reading.

So sit down. Take a deep, cleansing breath. Close your eyes. Wait for your pulse to slow to normal. There, now.

Typos are commonplace but minor errors. A few will get past even an experienced editor. Now that publications have gone cheap on the editing, a lot of them will get published, but they are still a minor annoyance rather than evidence that literacy has gone down the tubes.

What you should worry about is the kind of questioning that isn't being done now that the War on Editing has decimated the ranks: Is it clear? Does it make sense? Is it complete? And particularly, given the prevalence of plagiarism and fabrication, is it true?

*Singular they was intentional there. Do not write in.


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