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April 06, 2009  |  Teh taxonomy of typo's  |  3113 hit(s)

I've been soliciting thoughts about blogging from various people, and one of the questions I ask has to do with how important it is that you get all the spelling right. People sort of agree that email and blog writing is in general held to a lesser standard than production writing, but they also sort of agree that spelling errors detract from the text, even so. This was stated most succinctly by Scott Hanselman about his blog: "Hopefully folks don't think TOO poorly of me when I misspell words. Of course, I think horribly of YOU when YOU misspell." Or as John Scalzi once wrote "Here's a good rule of thumb: For every spelling error you make, your apparent IQ drops by 5 points."

It never hurts to spell correctly 100% of the time. I was thinking about Scalzi's observation, though, and I realized that it's more subtle than that. I decided that there is a kind of taxonomy of typos, and my reaction to a typo depends on what type of misspelling I encounter. Here's what I've come up with so far:

1. Mechanical. Typos that result from simple fumbles. You obviously know how to spell the word, but got it wrong in haste: teh or alreayd; more generally, transposed letters or missing spaces. (Another way to characterize these might be that they're typos that Word's auto-correct feature would catch and fix.)

2. Language mastery. Typos that confuse words where you should ("should") know better. This includes its/it's, their/there/they're, most apostrophe errors, etc. You didn't mistype; you typed what you intended, you just wrote the wrong word or used the wrong punctuation.[1]

3. Hard words. Typos in words whose spelling isn't obvious. Some words are often misspelled. Plus everyone has an idiosyncratic collection of words that they just can't seem to remember the spelling for.

4. Creative. Misspellings that seem to be deliberate, for effect or from personal taste. These might be words like tho and nite, or further afield, O hai and for realz. For a misspelling to be perceived this way, it has to be clear from the rest of the text that the writer does know what they're doing. (This does not apply to YouTube comments, for example.)

5. Due diligence. Generally speaking, these are misspelled proper names (people, products, things) plus foreign words. They're words whose spelling you'd know for sure only by looking it up. There are two subcategories here: a) clearly you know the name or word, you just don't know how to spell it, or b) it's not even clear that you know what you're trying to write (wallah!).

Speaking for myself, I have differing reactions to these typo types. Here's a summary of my reaction in terms of IQ perception to typos[2]:

Mechanical: Meh. +/-0
Language mastery: Ouch. -5
Hard words: Dude, use a spell checker. -1
Creative: Nice! Within limits, of course. +2
Due diligence. Hmm. a) -3 b) -10

To be clear, I'm talking only about informal writing -- the aforementioned emails and blog entries. In production text the bar is much higher, and for something like a resume, zero tolerance.

I'm curious to know other people's thoughts (thots) on this. Are there other types of typos? What are your reactions to different typo types?

[1] To me personally, "alot" falls more into the mastery category than into the mechanical category, because I usually perceive it to be the writer's intended spelling.

[2] You do not have to point out to me that there are lots of typos in my blog. (And emails, for that matter.) Hopefully you don't think too poorly of me. The thing with typos, as with so many things in life, is that my flaws are just minor indiscretions, whereas your flaws ... well! :-)

Scott Berry   06 Apr 09 - 5:14 PM

I don't have a real scoring system in place, even internally, but here's what I think in general, I guess. These things have much more effect on my opinion when I don't know the person already. If you only see a little bit from someone, and it has mistakes, your opinion won't be high. That's why you have to be so careful with resumes.

A mistake, anywhere, in any form, has almost no effect on what I think of someone. The cumulative effect of many mistakes, though, does. I have to admit that I've typoed what you've labeled as "Language Mastery": I've typed "its" when I've meant "it's". I knew the difference, just typed the wrong thing. I think that may be my most common non-Creative error (not "its" in particular, but just typing a different word than the one I meant, like "work" instead of "word"). (And yes, I'm counting periods after end quotes as a creative difference. Putting periods inside quotes occasionally wreaks havoc when somebody types a period they shouldn't've. And I probably fell outside your "within limits" a while ago...)

More obvious mistakes would score lower than less obvious ones. Easy apostrophe errors will make me wince more than Alex', Thomas' or Jesus's.

I think, to be a little unfair, it also depends on the subject of the blog. Sorry, Mike, but I would be more likely to dock you a little extra if I didn't know you already, since that's the topic of your blog (to some extent). If your blog was on archeology, I'd be more likely to give you a pass on grammar/spelling issues.

mike   06 Apr 09 - 8:58 PM

The scoring was sort a post-facto thing once I realized that there were differences in typos and in how I reacted to them -- just a way to be able to hold them all up and get a relative weight. The fundamental difference to me is one between an honest mistake and not knowing better.

I should point out that I'm talking about pure gut reaction. This can be tempered (or even overturned) by my rational self if I can see that the writer is obviously intelligent, as evidenced by the actual content. I mean, some people just aren't good spellers, and they are a heck of a lot smarter than me in, you know, every other way. Suppose Linus Torvalds wrote a blog post that consistenly misused their/they're. (Prolly he doesn't, but let's pretend.) You could hardly say, even to yourself, jeez, what a dufus.

It is of course ironic that I have typos everywhere in my own stuff (well "everywhere"), but that's one of the reasons I give a pass on mechanical-looking errors -- the hands aren't just keeping up with the brain! Ha. I take some comfort from reading the blogs of language people, including John McIntyre, copy-editing god[http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/], and seeing that even they have typos on occasion.[1] None of which means that there's no need for care.

[1] People never fail to point this out, which occasionally leads to an instance of McKean's Law: "Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error." (Also cited as Hartman's Law of Prescriptive Retaliation.)

Rich   09 Apr 09 - 3:30 PM

My zero tolerance is for advertisements. If you're selling "Honda's" then hire a damned college kid to proof read for you. And if you expect to make 3% comission on a million dollar piece of real estate, you get no sympathy from me if "the owner's took loving care of the garden".

mike   09 Apr 09 - 3:53 PM

Ha! I have to admit, I just assume that all real-estate agents combine a poor grasp of writing mechanics with an annoying enthusiasm for the peculiar code words of their profession ("cozy," "territorial view") to always produce copy that's painful (or hilarious, depending on your viewpoint) to read. I agree that being a prospect for a million-dollar home should come with a few benefits, like well-written descriptions, but apparently the profession as a whole doesn't seem to think so. Frankly, I'd be amazed to see a real-estate flyer that's without errors.

For those "Honda's," I assme you're referring to ads by local dealers. National ads seem on the whole to have had at least proofing. (Although dangling modifiers remain popular everywhere.)

iEditor   12 Apr 09 - 8:29 AM

This typography is masterful! But here's the thing, for me, you'd need another level to some of the categories - especially the mechanical one. Like you say, if it's a blog, it's not a big deal if it's 'alreayd' instead of 'already'. But what if your blog is related to finance and you describe "assets under management". Problem is, instead of typing it correctly, you fumble and lose a letter. I'll leave the dangerous letter to your imagination, but it's in the first word. For me, that's a far worse mistake. I work on correction software, and when we were designing that, the typos that we focussed on are the ones that could cause major anger/embarassment over and above the typo itself.

mike   12 Apr 09 - 11:11 PM

It's a worse mistake ("assets" minus), and it's one that a spell-checker won't find. On the plus side, you'd undoubtedly amuse your readers. :-)

Qwerty   17 Jul 09 - 10:40 AM

My favorite in an e-mail from a real estate agent: "We know in life the learning curb is always changing."

mike   24 Sep 09 - 10:58 PM

John McIntyre notes another category of typos: substitution errors. Have a look here: