Writing errors

An assortment of my errors in writing (some typing, some handwriting), with several different lessons to be drawn from them.

1. Handwriting on a card to a friend a few days ago:

Whose the green Bosom Girl in front?

(with WHOSE instead of WHO’S). Grant me that I know the difference between whose and who’s, that this was an inadvertent spelling error. Presumably it arose in the retrieval of the orthographic shape appropriate for /huz/. The point is that such things can happen even in the performance of highly skilled and experienced writers — and does, fairly often, in the retrieval of orthographic ITS or IT’S for /…™ts/.

Contrast my error with the very common error WHO’S for WHOSE, which is often advertent, intended — arising from the extension of the regular scheme for spelling possessives (in ‘S) to WHO, overriding the exceptional spelling WHOSE for this case.

2. In recent days I have had to type or handwrite the name DEAN PHOENIX many times (see here and here), and about half the time I get as far as PHON before I realize that I’m off the rails, go back, and correct it to PHOEN. (The problem is so severe that I made the error in typing the first sentence of this very note.)

There are at least two ways (by no means incompatible with one another; errors can have several mechanisms contributing to them) this could have arisen:

(a) as a “skipping ahead” or “skip-ahead” error, as in my PROUNCED for PRONOUNCED (discussed here);

(b) as a “completion” or “capture” error (see Mark Liberman here), like Liberman’s LOUDER OR SOFTWARE for LOUDER OR SOFTER. A completion error in producing PHOENIX would be facilitated by the frequency and salience of PHON- words for me as a linguist, in contrast to the lesser status of PHOEN- words: Phoenicia(n), Phoenix AZ, River Phoenix (the actor), Dean Phoenix (the pornstar, who picked his porn family name out of admiration for River Phoenix). (Notice the importance of individual experience here; things would probably be different for non-linguists in Arizona.)

An important fact about some of these errors is that they persist: once having made the error, you’re primed to do it again, and again. The result can then look to observers as if you “don’t know” the correct spelling (or pronunciation or word choice, in other error types); otherwise, why would you keep doing it? But these are cases where you can’t reason directly from someone’s productions to their state of mind, and need to get some evidence about that state of mind.

3. In writing up a Language Log piece on “The terror of technical titles” (here) last year, I found myself having to type the expression¬†terahertz laser beams several times. I got TERAHERTZ right the first time, and then fell into typing TETRAHERTZ for the rest of the posting, several times. This is a completion error — the first element TETRA- is more frequent and salient for me than TERA- — that persisted.

One of my correspondents was inclined to think that the persistence of the spelling was evidence that I had, in effect, “false knowledge” of the word in question, that I had malapropped TERA- to TETRA-. I disputed that.

4. Then just yesterday, posting on Jell-O ads (here), I repeatedly typed JELLO-O instead of JELL-O — including in the title of the posting, which I fixed just a few moments ago.

This is probably a result of my combining the spelling I prefer (hyphenless JELLO, which is in fact very common, as in “like nailing jello to a tree”), with the spelling the makers of the stuff insist on (JELL-O, with a hyphen). I decided against claiming that JELLO-O was intentionally playful, with a Jell-O like quiver in it, though it was tempting.

5. Finally, also from yesterday: I started a (hand-written) note to my friend Ann Burlingham, intending to write DEAR ANN, but producing instead DEAN. Unfortunately, I caught the error at that point, so I had no way of telling whether I was going to go on with a comma and the body of the letter (in a skip-ahead error) or with DEAN ANN (an anticipation error, a very common sort of typo, as in my 2007 posting to ADS-L that had THOSE THESE for THOUGH THESE).

And possibly all this attention I’d been paying to Dean Phoenix might have played a role. Errors are often facilitated by material that’s in the speaker’s mind but not in the linguistic context.

And that’s the recent news from the writing error front.


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