When spell-check won’t help: How typos sneak into writing

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Oct. 18, 2011.

(Revised from a guest post originally written for Voxy.com that also appeared on Ragan.com)

Writers and editors have a lot to juggle in making prose presentable: big-picture items like accuracy, clarity, flow and structure, as well as details like grammar, spelling, punctuation and word choice. Details matter: one wrong word — even one wrong letter — can change the meaning of a sentence, or make it confusing. This is why editors especially need a keen eye for detail (plus a sense for smooth writing, and that little bell in your head that goes off when something seems not quite right).

One of the regular features Grammar Monkeys does on Twitter is “When spell-check won’t help”: sentences that have a wrong word that’s still a word. It’s not flagged by spell-check, but it’s a mistake that can throw the whole sentence off — or make it unintentionally funny. We find a lot of these in copy, and now people tweet them to us as well (thanks to @grammarsnark, @madbeyond, @EATutor and @bergly for some of the examples below).

These errors fall into several types:

The one-letter-off typo
One letter can make a big difference.

“The nation’s intestate highway system.” (interstate)
“The company’s head of new-produce development” (new-product)
“The heaving helping of caviar” (heaping)
“The pops concert, canon launch and fireworks show” (cannon)
“Moral was low in that office” (morale)
“A list of businesses that asses the additional charge.” (assess)

The autocorrect typo
When computers suggest corrections or automatically correct words to what they think you mean, they sometimes get it wrong. (This phenomenon has a name: the Cupertino Effect. Newspapers have had to run corrections for mistakenly calling a columnist a communist and a socialite a socialist, both of which were probably this sort of error.

“How to keep your composer when …” (composure)
“The restaurant offers traditional fare severed Japanese-style.” (served)
“The man, a decedent of Austrian immigrants” (descendant)
“He testified for the prostitution.” (prosecution)
“He has become aquatinted with relatives in Germany.” (acquainted)
“It’s like killing two brides with one stone.” (birds)

The wrong word
These can be homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently) or words that are just commonly confused. Apostrophe errors (they’re/there/their, you’re/your and so on) also fall into this category.

“Police taser man after he fleas.” (flees)
“We were tenement farmers in the back of their pasture.” (tenant)
“Did President Obama stop wearing his wedding wring?” (ring)
“He stopped to get a drink to cleanse his palette” (palate)
“He took the reigns as CEO in March” (reins)
“Get a sneak peak” (peek)

The one-letter-off “facto”
These may be trickiest, because when you’re looking at writing on the micro level, picking at details, you don’t always think about the big-picture stuff.

“Honoring troops killed in the wars in Iran and Afghanistan” (We may not like Iran, but we’re at war in Iraq)
“The nation hit its debt limit of $14.3 million in May.” (If only — it’s $14.3 trillion. This is why editors need to be mindful of math, too.)
“State legislatures will hold a public forum on Saturday.” (There are national meetings of state-level lawmakers, but this one was for state legislators.)

As using a calculator does not make one an accountant, using spell-check does not make one an editor. Spell-check is a useful tool, but it’s no substitute for careful, conscientious reading.

As always, any misspellings in the above post (like one already caught by @oliviafaix) are the result of Muphry’s Law.