On the error watch

I’ll start with straightforward typos, where it’s getting the fingers to hit the intended keys that’s at issue, and then work out from there. From Greg Morrow on Facebook earlier today (exchanges lightly edited):

GM: My Dad’s got the 9-inch double-serrated Wüsthof bread knife and it is sweet. I don’t cover it exactly, I just want one exactly like it.

AZ > GM: Entirely beside your point, but I don’t cover it exactly is a beautiful example of a keyboard typo: cover for covet because R is next to T.

I continued, widening the scope of the comment:

AZ > GM: civet for covet would have been equally likely (I next to O), but you would probably have caught it, because your unconscious would have flagged the noun civet where a verb was called for. Spellcheckers wouldn’t have flagged either of them, because cover and civet are both English words.

Meanwhile, you probably would have flagged cobet, with B for adjacent-key V, because it’s not an actual English word, thought it’s a possible one; and you almost surely would have flagged cpvet, with P for adjacent-key O, because it’s not even a possible English word.

GM > AZ: It’s also possibly an autocorrect, since cover has a higher probability than covet. iOS autocorrect doesn’t quite get the depth of English vocabulary. But I certainly didn’t notice it for the reasons you outline.

AZ > GM:  I make hundreds (probably thousands) of keyboard typos a day (because my right hand barely works), which I then have to ferret out and fix. There’s no avoiding the problem; creating text requires that most of the mechanical action be automatized, so errors are inevitable. (If you had to consciously select every key you hit, you couldn’t write at all.)

(Note: in creating the previous three sentences of text, I made 15 keyboard typos, of various sorts. That I caught.)

Other sorts of keyboard typos I make, with great frequency: omitting letters because my fingers didn’t strike the keys with sufficient force (I am especially prone to omitting the letter L; and to producing only one instance of a doubled letter, as when I just typed leter); adding letters because a finger strikes too forcefully and grazes over an adjacent key in addition to the target (alsdo, only too frequently typed for also). Yes, I have adjusted the strike-force on my keyboard, but all that I’ve achieved is a rough balance between missed keystrokes and extra ones.

“typos” of a higher kind. We’re inclined to use the label typos for all sorts of inadvertent errors in producing text on a keyboard. The implicit contrast here is to a very different sort of mistake, which some have called thinkos: what you type is just what you intend, but the intended material involves a misapprehension about usage in your speech community: mis-spellings (acheive for achieve) and eggcorns (it doesn’t pass mustard for … muster), in particular.

But even if your production plan, what you intend to type, passes muster in your speech community, many things can go wrong in realizing that plan, and the problems are not just in directing your strokes on the keyboard; glitches can happen at higher levels of cognitive processing. Speaking very crudely, realizing that plan involves both blocking out a pattern that will express your intended meaning and choosing words (including their pronunciations) to fill the slots in that pattern. Many things can go wrong — and with real-life examples, there might be alternative ways to get to what’s actually typed, and several different effects might be mixed together in the result. Bear all that in mind as I take up a few examples that have come my way in the past few months.

uterine kid. What I posted, originally, in my 1/19/22 posting “Death Strikes the Adorable”:

One is a hardboiled, coke-addled Fed from the mean streets of the City, the other a sleek luterine kid from the pristine snow slopes of Otter, Montana.

At that, a howl of complaint in a comment from Joel B. Levin:

The things you learn when trying to get a simple answer to a simple question: WTF is luterine? … I learned that I should have been looking up lutrine.

Several things could have happened in choosing an adjective meaning ‘pertaining to or characteristic of an otter’. I might have recalled the Latin source word luter ‘otter’, but forgotten that its stem was lutr– in both inflection and derivation; just adding the adjective-forming suffix –ine to luter would give give luterine, which would then be a spelling error, a misapprehension about the spelling.

But it’s also possible that I aimed for lutrine knowing that it was an alternative to luterine, and then was subject to interference from the existing, phonologically very similar, adjective uterine ‘pertaining to or characteristic of a uterus’; when you aim for one word, words similar to it in pronunciation and meaning are also activated (lurking in the background of your subconscious), and they can interfere with what you retrieve.

That’s my impression of what happened to me, since as soon as I read Joel’s comment, I thought, “Oh yeah, it’s not like uterine“, and corrected it, with an apology to Joel; I should have caught it. (Proofreading your own stuff is hell on wheels; very few people, even professional copyeditors, are any good at it.)

In any case, that would make it a kind of paradigmatic error: an error in choosing the right word, or (as in this case) the right spelling for that word, from a set of alternatives. (You, subconsciously, consider the paradigm, the set of alternatives, and pick one from them.)

on-line port site. A Facebook note from Jean Berko Gleason on 1/20/22, after she got blackmail scam purportedly about her use of on-line porn:

JBG: Well the only time I’ve ever been to a port site was when I was once trying to find an airport and for some reason I got taken there instead. I got off very quickly, but then made sure to get rid of all the cookies on my computer. I think if you were to make a profile of porn users, I’d be in the Least Likely category, so the spam is just funny. I passed it on to BU and they assure me my account has not been compromised.

AZ > JBG: Just as I’d supposed. (Plus the nice typo, port site for porn site, with the T anticipating the T of SITE and probably with PORT anticipating the PORT of AIRPORT.)

JBG > AZ: Oh geez. You are so right. I don’t usually make such dumb typos. But the thought of Me in a porn video is just so funny. I guess they’d have to call it “Great Grandma Does Porn!”

AZ> JBG: You probably make typos like this quite a lot, but you usually catch them immediately and edit them away. I’d guess that in this case the emotions of your response to the blackmail made you less attentive than normal.

In any case, this is a syntagmatic error, in which the material in the surrounding context affects the form of a word (or other element) — in this case, anticipatorily (we are always planning ahead, and material in those plans can affect the stuff we’re currently assembling; of course, material we have already produced can also persevere into our current plans).

the philosophy of Pluto. From Facebook on 1/22/22, Lynne Murphy with the cry of a despairing teacher at grading (BrE marking) time:

LM: Latest thing to make me giggle / sigh / despair (I actually have no idea how I’m feeling now. I am numb from marking): “The tradition […] harkens back to the philosophies of Aristotle and Pluto”

AZ > LM: Ah yes, Pluto, the dog-faced dark lord of the philosophical underworld.

A lovely paradigmatic error. The student has a big stock of proper names, in particular male proper names. Out of all these, he’s trying to pick the name of a philosopher of significance in linguistics, someone Lynne’s course introduced him to. As an aid in this search, he has some recollection of the pronunciation and spelling of the name, so his task is like a tip-of-the-tongue search, but not done consciously.

He’s aiming for Plato, but on the basis of phonology / orthography, he gets Pluto: the name of the cartoon dog; the name of a dwarf planet; the name of the Greek god of the underworld (Pluto as an alternative to the name Hades). Very close, but alas no philosophical cigar.

On errors of this type, from my 11/22/12 posting “Brief mention: Fay-Cutler malapropism”:

Yesterday, I said, in answer to a question about the acceptability of some tea:

I don’t know. I just took my first steps.

A word substitution, clearly (steps for intended sips (of tea)) — involving two very common words, which I’m unlikely to have confused. So: not a classical malapropism, and also clearly not a mistake based on semantics. Instead, it’s a Fay/Cutler malapropism, based on the great phonological similarity between target and actual production: two monosyllables sharing initial /s/, final /s/, and a vowel that is lax and (non-low) front.

Fay/Cutler errors are based on form (phonological or orthographic), but there are similar paradigmatic errors based on meaning — as when we use an opposite word to the one we intended (very common), or use the name of an alternative within some larger category (dog for cat, for example).

Leave a Reply


%d bloggers like this: