Do you make a distinction between typos

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 17, 2007

Do you make a distinction between typos and misspellings, or is that just me? For example, “regualr” is a typo while “refridgerator” is a misspelling. The former is a mechanical error while the latter demonstrates a lack of specific knowledge. Both are signs of sloppy writing which might be why people don’t often distinguish the two.

Reader comments

Adam K.Oct 17, 2007 at 11:36AM

I worked as a copy editor for many years, Jason, and yes, I make a distinction — for the same reason you state here. I’ve also found that it’s helpful when working with writers or editors to refer to any misspelling as a “typo.” It helps in saving face for the offending party if indeed the mistake falls more into the realm of “misspelling” than “typo.”

Heather ROct 17, 2007 at 11:39AM

i definitely distinguish between the two, in the same way. but maybe that’s because i was/am an editor.

p.s. i saw clay shirky speak yesterday and he mentioned you in his presentation about social capital. your two carriage returns for kaycee nicole. maybe not what you’d like to be known for, but at least you were called “jason kottke, the designer.” or did you already know?

DemetriceOct 17, 2007 at 11:41AM

Does the frequency of the error matter? What if this person continuously types “regualr?”

john s.Oct 17, 2007 at 11:43AM

Yes! I’m able to forgive the typo much easier than the misspelling. My fingers work faster than my mind sometimes, but there’s no excuse for ‘refridgerator’ or — this one really is really irksome — ‘definately’. Ack!

paulOct 17, 2007 at 11:44AM

to me they are very different. maybe this is ridiculous, but in college i used to introduce typos into emails that i wanted to see slapdash… but never misspellings. for me the latter is criminal while the former is endearing…

paulOct 17, 2007 at 11:45AM

haha that should be seem! and it was a typo, not a spelling error… and not a deliberate one, sad to say.

john s.Oct 17, 2007 at 11:46AM

Speaking of typos: Check your earlier entry about the optimized Google page… ;)

dolfaceOct 17, 2007 at 11:49AM

Yes! Absolutely, lose/loose, their/there/they’re, its/it’s errors are misspellings (although its can sometimes be a typo), while lsoe is a typo.

EmonOct 17, 2007 at 11:50AM

I make a distinction between the two. Agree with John S. ‘Definately’ pops up so much everywhere that it sometimes make me double-check (half kidding). My most embarrassing moment was sending a mass email where I misspelled ‘misspell.’ People laughed about it in front of me and that set me straight.

Anthony BowerOct 17, 2007 at 11:54AM

Typo = caused by keyboards or cell phones*

Mispelling = a “gehs” at how to spell it.

* this could be caused by crappy cell phone “prediction” of what word you’re trying to spell

Bill IOct 17, 2007 at 11:55AM

I definitely distinguish between the two for the same reason you mention above.

I have a more difficult time deciding what to think of istos, though. If I have one version of a sentence where “it’s” is appropriate, and alter the sentence such that “its” is now appropriate, but forget to make the change, where does that fall? More than anything, it’s a proofreading mistake, but I still struggle with what to call it.

FilipOct 17, 2007 at 11:56AM

Yep. Also known as performance errors and competence errors, and the distinction can be relevant for computational linguists, too.

EmonOct 17, 2007 at 11:58AM

Ay ay….I meant…”sometimes makes me…”

BlakeOct 17, 2007 at 11:59AM

I think common words that sound the same phonetically but can be spelled differently (there / they’re, for example) are a special case. While a misspelling would indicate lack of specific knowledge, as you say, sometimes the fingers simply type one spelling when the brain knows another is right. In those cases, what appear to be misspellings are often typos.

JackOct 17, 2007 at 11:59AM

If you mistype a misspell, no one may notice.

LuukOct 17, 2007 at 12:02PM

Errors, typo’s, and automatically introduced errors, of course! Do not forget the misery that spelling-checkers have brought us. Quite funny is the poem Ode to my spellingchecker, more serious:Jew Jersy was voted mistake of the year in 200. And an official phenomenon is the Cupertino Effect a favorite blog of mine wrote about a year ago. ;-)

All of them are equally bad and the result of laziness: not reading a string of text before entering it into the public domain. But the real errors are often the most harsh, and do tell more ablout the writer than that he or she has got big fingers.

NoelleOct 17, 2007 at 12:02PM

I was spelling “receiving” as “recieving” for about a year in all my emails (I work in a warehouse) before I installed spell check in Firefox and realized I was doing it wrong. I like to think that it was a typo, but all this time I may have mixed up my letters because of bad spelling.

loomisOct 17, 2007 at 12:03PM

Since ‘refridgerator” is only one letter off from the correct spelling, I would tend to class it as a typo unless it was repeated. (If refrigerator is the definitive spelling, why is the diminutive spelled “fridge”? Perhaps no one wants to contemplate the great unwashed interacting with “frige”?)

I used to know someone who seriously called typos “Type O errors”.

luukOct 17, 2007 at 12:04PM

My goodness, what is it with me? ‘2005’, of course, and I’d give my kingdom for a space before the word ‘Jew’.

Reacting on a typo-topic is bound to have typo’s.

Adam HylandOct 17, 2007 at 12:07PM

Yes, absolutely. I probably give that leeway because my method of typing (highly evolved hunt and peck) is one subject to transpositions and omissions. I will swiftly correct obvious errors that stem from a lack of knowledge (hippocrite versus hypocrite) but most other typoes are just an outgrowth of the medium.

NixtaOct 17, 2007 at 12:08PM

istos or itsos, Bill?

The truth seems to be (and I’m sure there have been many studies done on this some of which Mr. K will doubtless dig up for us as examples) that typos are unavoidable whilst typing - just see these comments. Spelling and grammatical errors are probably unavoidable too for very nearly all of us as a product of the complexity of the language and the varying quality of education across the English writing world, which is why editors found jobs in the first place (that, and covering for writers drinking/whatevering on the job, working too many hours, or just being lazy). It’s just as well they were, too, or else there’d be typos in all the papers, not just the Guardian.

jkottkeOct 17, 2007 at 12:11PM

Lets all agree that its OK to make spelling mistakes, tpyos, itsos, and grammetical errors in this thread. Sound good?

Spoon BoyOct 17, 2007 at 12:11PM

I don’t beleive theirs any diffrence between a typographicial errer and a mispeling.

MarkOct 17, 2007 at 12:15PM

Yeah, they describe different causes for a family of errors. What I perceive as typo v. misspelling is mostly going to depend on whose writing I’m reading, and how common or difficult the word is. I’ll give some folks a little more benefit of the doubt.

LaurieOct 17, 2007 at 12:20PM

Absolutely! And I’ll add two more types of errors. The first is one that my dyslexic husband is prone to do: using a homonym, for example “their” instead of “there.” A spellchecker does not catch these, but fortunately I do. The second error is the indiscriminate use of apostrophes, the grammatical equivalent of scratching one’s fingernails on a chalkboard.

ToddOct 17, 2007 at 12:29PM

Too funny! Yes, I make a distinction between a typo and a spelling error. I spent time as an editor and writer for a couple of different publications, and I note many things: run on sentences, poor grammar, misuse of punctuation, etc. Depending upon the context (e-mail vs. IM/chat) I have varying levels of “error forgiveness”.

ErikOct 17, 2007 at 12:33PM

I teach composition and mentally make distinctions between typos and spellos but let my students know about both kinds simply as errors, since the presence of either (in a “finished” piece of writing) is a sign of careless copy-editing. I’m more forgiving when it comes to homophone-caused misspellings, but only to a point. Where that point is, I’m not entirely sure.

RobinOct 17, 2007 at 12:40PM

I usually don’t really pay attention to the differences, but now that you mention it there is a stark contrast between mistyping and misspelling.

Joel TurnipseedOct 17, 2007 at 12:50PM

Of course there’s a difference, but if the “Sheikh wanted to import ice cream for his desert” you really wouldn’t know which error had occurred—or whether one had occurred at all.

Language: it’s trickier than pasta!

JamesonOct 17, 2007 at 12:58PM

Agreed, the commission of the error is different, but both result from sloppy proofreading, so I consider the two to be the same. If you meant to type “regular” you should have noticed “regualr” before publishing just as you should’ve corrected “refridgerator.” No points for “mechanical error” contributing to the original mistake.

paulski.mcbOct 17, 2007 at 1:07PM

Absolutely. And I never put too much stock in the occasional typo or misspelling. Some of the smartest people I’ve ever known couldn’t spell worth a damn…

ambroseOct 17, 2007 at 1:11PM

Absoleetely-lutely distinguish between the two.

JaceOct 17, 2007 at 1:21PM

There should be a separate thread devoted to the hopeless frequency of the typos ‘teh’ and ‘.cmo’. What is up with those two monsters? I’m the worst.

ErikOct 17, 2007 at 1:22PM

One of the problems with spellos (but not typos): they’re often knowledge-based. If you only know a word in an improperly spelled form, you can’t catch it on a subsequent read-through. (Which is why I encourage my students to solicit outside readers for their work.) That said, if you know that you don’t know a word’s spelling, it’s lazy to guess instead of checking in a dictionary.

Review StewOct 17, 2007 at 1:34PM

There’s a parallel in music performance too. It’s one thing to try and hit that high F-sharp and miss it. It’s another to think all along that it was supposed to be an F-natural.

Either way, music has lots more good excuses to fall back upon than typing does:
“I’m sure this is what the composer meant”
“This is my interpretation”
“That’s what makes it jazz, man”

michaelOct 17, 2007 at 2:00PM

I agree with your idea; however, I am trying to adopt a new viewpoint at work:

It doesn’t matter who made the mistake or what kind of mistake it is, we still need to get it fixed.

BenjaminOct 17, 2007 at 2:24PM

I don’t really care about either. People make mistakes. Who cares if something is misspelled.? As long as I can understand what they are saying that’s all that matters to me.

ZachOct 17, 2007 at 3:04PM

A version of WordPerfect I had as a kid would make this distinction for you. How rude!

ChrisOct 17, 2007 at 3:22PM

In terms of correct and incorrect, both typos and misspellings are incorrect, and thus, indistinguishable.

I’ve never thought of them as different or one more telling of knowledge than the other.

A misspelling can just as easily be a mechanical mistake as a typo. We’re all human and it’s as easy to hit the wrong key as it is to strike the keys in the wrong order. (Unless, you assume all misspellings were intentional.)

Adam RiceOct 17, 2007 at 3:24PM

I do distinguish between the two.

There’s a third category, the mondegreen, that drives me slightly batty—when I see someone type “tow the line” or “road to hoe,” there’s a little voice in my head saying “don’t you know English?”

ErikOct 17, 2007 at 4:19PM


If your reference to “knowledge” is back to my post, I should probably clarify. Spelling errors aren’t “telling of knowledge”—brilliant writers can easily be poor spellers—but they are knowledge-based errors because you either know the correct spelling or don’t know it (which includes forgetting the correct spelling in the moment).

Typos tend to be an issue of mechanical error. (I’d also grant that there are “mechanical” spelling errors as well: I’ve caught myself many times typing “their” or “there” when I know I mean “they’re,” for example. That contraction doesn’t come up nearly as often in my writing, so habit sometimes kicks in.)

beneOct 17, 2007 at 6:02PM

loomis says:
…I used to know someone who seriously called typos “Type O errors”.

What are these errors called? I find them interesting, because such people have an understanding of a word or phrase’s meaning and how it sounds, but do not know the correct word(s). It’s an interesting internet phenomena, because you can generally get away with sound-alikes when spoken but not when typed. I’ve come across “intensive purposes” for “intents and purposes” and “pre-madonna” for “prima donna.”

AJ KandyOct 17, 2007 at 7:52PM

There’s a great book — Paul Brian’s Common Errors In English — that explains most of the itsos and homonym errors we come across in life. All available for free online here.

As to the refrigerator / fridge dichotomy, I can only surmise that the D was added to obey the “short vowel sound before a double consonant” pronunciation rule. Otherwise it’d be pronounced “Fry-ge”!

Don’t get me started on the whole dilemma / dilemna issue either…

Augie De Blieck Jr.Oct 17, 2007 at 8:29PM

Yes. There’s a BIG difference. “Typo” is the excuse many lazy people use in an attempt to have people forgive their “misspellings.” A “typo” is a physical error, a fat finger, a double hit on a key. A “typo” is not a gap in knowledge or an incorrect assumption.

jacomienOct 18, 2007 at 6:08AM

I also make the same distinction and it frustrates me when I point people at their misspelling and get the “whoops, typo”-reply. By doing they they refuse to acknowledge their lack of knowledge!

It’s similar to people who say that their ‘machine’ (e.g. pc) made a mistake instead of acknowledging that they didn’t use/instruct the ‘machine’ well.

jacomienOct 18, 2007 at 6:09AM

I also make the same distinction and it frustrates me when I point people at their misspelling and get the “whoops, typo”-reply. By doing that they refuse to acknowledge their lack of knowledge!

It’s similar to people who say that their ‘machine’ (e.g. pc) made a mistake instead of acknowledging that they didn’t use/instruct the ‘machine’ well themselves!

jacomienOct 18, 2007 at 6:12AM

Btw: would you consider the above accidental double posting a typo? I’m not sure.

JasonOct 18, 2007 at 10:39AM

Just combine the two concepts and call them misstypos.

JeremyOct 18, 2007 at 12:35PM

In two of the above posts, the word typo’s is used. My question is: Is this a correct use of an apostrophe? The apostrophe, when used properly, either indicates possession or the absence of characters that would otherwise be there. In this case, typo is already vernacular for typographical error, so it is probably more correct to use typos to indicate the plural. However, I’m not sure it would be totally incorrect to use typo’s, because the apostrophe could be considered a substitute for the characters “graphical error.” So, either typo’s is a typo, or it’s not, depending on your feeling regarding the use of the word typo in the first place.

atanas entchevOct 18, 2007 at 2:59PM

Jeremy: Typo’s is possessive form, therefore incorrectly used above, period.

JoshOct 18, 2007 at 7:51PM

I make the distinction. When I see typos, particularly in instant message chats, I am forgiving, especially since the pace of typing is much more rapid than with an email or a document. But when I see outright misspellings, I am torn between a desire to keep our language together and a desire to not be a total dick :) I’ve been slowly trying to improve my grammar. I’ve even started eliminating sentences ending with a preposition!

This is slightly off topic, but I think everyone here would appreciate it: http://xkcd.com/326/

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.