Just Curious

Please state the answer in the form of a question... Just Curious is the occassional blog of Andrew Nelson. In an attempt to balance the polemical tone of most of the blogosphere, all entries hope to pose at least one useful question. Many entries simply advance useful memes. Personal entries may abandon the interrogative conceit.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

what are typos? and what are they not?

For a long time, I've been wondering if the word "typo" really means what we think it does. This question was prompted by making corrections to my thesis -- my advisers pointed out that I had numerous "typos," but when I thought about it, that wasn't really an accurate description of the kind of errors I was making. To me, "typographical error" would seem to indicate either misspellings introduced by bad keystrokes or things like extra spaces, tabs, etc. However, auto-spell check has virtually eliminated these kinds of errors, except for bugs like there/their/they're. So what are these errors I was making, and what do we call them?

The most frequent kind I've seen while scanning over the thesis once again has been errors of omission. Now I don't have any good way of proving this, since I so rarely write by hand anymore, but I think these kinds of errors are much more common when typing. This would seem to be in part a result of the speed at which one can compose while typing, but also a result of the ability to delete large chunks of text at once. Similar errors result from moving chunks of text. Many journalists can tell stories of copy editors who have moved up paragraphs in their stories but failed to check that people referred to in the graf have already been named. Similar problems happen with pronouns and antecedents.

The point of all this is that the errors described are not "typos" in the classic sense of the word. They could never have been produced on a typewriter; but more importantly, in a cognitive sense, they are not the result of composing on a keyboard. Rather, they are the result of writing on a computer, which has given us new capabilities to transform documents (which also happen to produce this group of errors). And as my experience with my thesis has sadly shown, these errors can be more serious than mere typos. Therefore, I propose that we come up with a new word for them, something more specific than "error" and more accurate than "typo."

Suggestion on form... I have notoriously bad handwriting, and sometimes I find in the middle of a word that the letters just aren't coming together as they should -- not a spelling error, just an inability to make a word look the way it should. I've jokingly called these "scriptos," and people seem to immediately understand what I'm talking about, so it seems like a decent neologism. Perhaps there is a word we can coin with the "-o" suffix that would fit the bill for our non-typos? I was thinking "compto," but that sounds somewhat awkward. Slightly better -- "clipto," which could refer both to the errors we generate via our ability to manipulate large amounts of text and to the evil Word paper clip, which symbolizes the errors generated by Word. BUT sounds a bit like "klepto"...

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