My New Year’s resolution is to write less about politics. But Orwell has hardly been the only one to note how deeply entwined are politics and language. Today I’m obsessed with the difference between typos and misspellings.
Why? Because the storm of tweets sent out by our president-elect reveals an unusual number of orthographic oddities. Let’s put aside, for the moment, the claim that these are “grammar errors,” grammar being another province from orthography. I’m interested in the subtle difference between, say, the word Phoenix being spelled Phoneix and the word paid being spelled payed.
Typographical errors are rarer these days because of the prevalence of auto-correction software, which generally replaces teh with the, though it has yet to find a fix for words that accidentally form other words, like form and from. Where typos do occur (because that software isn’t activated, or can’t guess at the word intended), it’s generally due to a slip of hand or finger, especially in what’s unkindly been dubbed “fat-finger syndrome,” a problem especially with the onscreen keyboard of smartphones. That some people are faster, sloppier typists than others says little beyond the obvious. Back in the transitional period between typewriters and computers, when the electronic typewriter made its brief appearance, I owned one with a glitch in its program: Anytime I typed too fast, it would replace the letter n with the letter k, so that a character leaked, rather than leaned, against the door.
This isn’t to say that typos don’t matter. An international crisis ensued when a typist accidentally transcribed Sedan as Sudan in the March 2, 2005, Congressional Record. And the email to Clinton campaign chair John Podesta reassuring him that a message he had received to change his password was “a legitimate email” was no doubt a typo. The helpdesk staffer had meant to write an illegitimate but went about it too fast. Sic transit.
But a misspelling differs from a typo in that the typist either believes the word to be spelled differently or has no clear idea and is simply guessing. We professors see errors like those in the president-elect’s tweets far more frequently than we’d like. At the same time, we’re sometimes hard pressed to distinguish misspelling from badly auto-corrected typo. Using a few of the tweets as examples, let me unpack:
Looks to me like the Bernie people will fight. If not, there blood, sweat, and tears was a total waist of time. Waist for waste could conceivably be a typo, if the author omits the final e and the autocorrect function supplies an interior i instead. Mine doesn’t do this, but programs differ. There seems a misspelling, albeit one that derives from inattention more than ignorance.
The Democrats, lead by head clown Chuck Schumer, know how bad Obamacare is. A misspelling. Typographical sloppiness would not lead to the insertion of the extra letter a. Most of us understand that this mistake comes from the oddity of English spelling, where the past tense of read is read and the identically pronounced past tense of lead is led. More on this sort of error below.
Keep you doctor, keep your plan! A typo, omitting the r.
Ted Cruz is totally unelectable ... Will loose big to Hillary. Surely a misspelling, and again, we understand that the rhyming of lose with choose rather than with hose, combined with the existence of the word loose, makes this a common error, despite the fact that spell-check software generally flags it (which implies that the typist doesn’t know an alternative).
All of the phony T.V. commercials against me are bought and payed for by SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS. A misspelling with no obvious explanation other than lack of knowledge about the irregular past-tense spelling of the verb to pay. Interestingly, this is the only error thus far that my own spell-check function has failed to mark.
Wow, every poll said I won the debate last night. Great honer! (to which a producer at Vox responded, “Is that your honer or are you just happy to see me?”). Misspelling. The key for e is nowhere near the key for o. To be fair, other -or words, like adapter/adaptor, have alternate spellings, but –or/-er is a suffix in those cases.
Leightweight chocker Marco Rubio (tweeted three times, same spelling). A double misspelling. While English is notorious for its apparently illogical gh spelling and pronunciation variations, you’d have to be thinking light is spelled like height to add the extra e, and the long-vowel rule makes chocker for choker particularly odd.
China steals United States Navy research drone … in unpresidented act. A misspelling, possibly with Freudian implications.
Why does it matter if the mistakes are typos or misspellings? As our interface with writing evolves, people who study spelling are scrambling to keep up. But there has been a consensus that, in general, people who read a lot will be better spellers than those who do not, regardless of formal spelling instruction; and recent studies have shown strong neural correlations between written language comprehension and language production, or spelling. In other words, if you see a word correctly spelled millions of times, then regardless of the peculiarities of English orthography, you’re apt to know when it looks “wrong.”
Conversely, we tend to assume that people who misspell a great deal — as opposed to those who make typographical errors — are not just sloppy typists or proofreaders, but less literate than those who spell well. This is not always the case. Dyslexia could be a factor. And while I have not read studies on the connection between auto-correction and spelling, it strikes me as reasonable that readers who grew up with the assumption that the computer would fix their misspellings might not process the words they read in the same way as those of us who grew up without computers. But our president-elect not only grew up without computers, but apparently does not use one (except, that is, the hand-held version with which he tweets).
So, while it is not impossible that a highly literate person would produce the tweets I have just cited, it is reasonable to infer that the person producing them may not be highly literate. May not, in fact, read much at all, or may never have read very much. And for those of us who believe that critical thinking, the absorption of complex information, and an engagement with nuance are presidential qualities that most likely evolve through frequent and prolonged contact with the written word, this prospect is terrifying.