Recently in the Errors Category

Typo generator

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Researchers at U. Penn have created software that generates typos. Give it a phrase, and it will generate a list of variants on that phrase, featuring things like missing letters, doubled letters, and so on. I'm not sure whether they specifically focus on typos that real people would make while typing (for example, substituting letters that are adjacent on a keyboard in a given language), but either way, I'm amused by the idea.

In addition to being cute, the code has search-relevant implications; website owners can use it to generate likely misspellings of search queries, in order to catch traffic from people who misspell their queries. I obviously don't advocate using this for black-hat SEO, but it seems to me that it has legitimate uses for white-hat SEO.


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Not long ago, I read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (in a printed copy, on paper—the relevance of which I'll explain later), and was struck by this bit:

He'd always said it of Mr. Leamas, always would, he was a gent. Not public school, mind, nothing arsy-tansy but a real gent.

So I got curious and looked up “arsy-tansy,” only to discover that it's a hapax legomenon: in the entirety of the web as indexed by Google, the only occurrence of that term is in the Google Books search result from that book.

(After I post this entry, of course, that will no longer be true.)

I thought maybe it was a misspelling of a more common word, so I tried searching again without the quotation marks. The only other relevant result was this:

“We used to think Bennington girls were artsy-tansy dykes,” counters the former captain of the debating team.

Except that that's an OCR error; the original text (from Jay McInerney's story “Philomena”) says “artsy-fartsy.” So that's no help.

There's another occurrence of “artsy-tansy” in an unrelated Google Books result, but that too is an OCR error for “artsy-fartsy.” (Looking at the shapes of the words “tansy” and “fartsy,” you can see how a computer might misread one for the other.)

I thought for a moment that “arsy-tansy” in the Le Carré book might also be an OCR error, but recall that the copy I was reading was printed on paper.

Still, it's possible that the book was OCRed at some point before the edition I have, which is the first Pocket Books trade paperback edition, from 2001.

So, if any of you have an older edition of the book, could you take a look? The sentence in question is near the beginning of chapter 11, in the midst of the very long second paragraph of that chapter.

And coming at it from the other side: have any of you encountered the word “arsy-tansy” in other contexts?

old win

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Just encountered an amusing typo in a news article: “old win in new bottles.”

I suppose the opposite of that is old fail in new bottles.

The arguable fact

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I have some sympathy for this kind of construction, 'cause I've done it too:

There's no way to two-step around the fact that season 11 of Dancing with the Stars has arguably been the most controversial in the show's history

—“Why Bristol Palin May Win Dancing with the Stars,” by Monica Rizzo, 22 November 2010

But I try to rewrite it when I notice that I've done it. Because it's an absolute and undeniably certain unquestionable fact that I think maybe possibly this construction is a little bit kind of sort of contradictory and slightly somewhat self-undermining.

Is it a fact or isn't it? If it is, then don't qualify it with uncertainty indicators. And if it's uncertain, then don't call it a fact, and certainly don't emphasize that it's an indisputable fact.



Several years ago, I took a sideswipe at “literally” in an entry about something else. John S and Shmuel both gently pointed out that I was wrong to be fussy about it. I never responded to those comments, but I hereby belatedly thank both of you. You were right, though it makes me grumpy.

I managed somehow to avoid getting imprinted with a lot of the standard prescriptivist peeves. For example, I've never had a problem with using “nauseous” to mean “nauseated.”

But “literally,” to my very literalist mind, has always felt blatantly and bizarrely wrong.

This morning, I saw an article in Fast Company that said: “Dreams of legalized marijuana in California literally went up in smoke this week[...]”

Which manages to combine my annoyance over cheap pot puns with my annoyance with “literally.”

I considered dropping a note to the people who run Literally, A Web Log, but then I saw it's been over a year since their last post. (They tweeted more recently, but still a month and a half ago.)

And then I found an excellent article about “literally” by dictionary editor Jesse Sheidlower from 2005, and I decided to just bite the bullet and confess that I'm wrong.

Sheidlower points out (as Shmuel had done) that use of “literally” as an all-purpose intensifier goes back over a century, used in a bunch of Canonical Literary Works by a bunch of Great Literary Authors. It's the same argument I use to support gender-neutral “they”: if people who are widely regarded as among the greatest writers in English can do it, who am I to say they're wrong?

The Sheidlower article traces the history of the word's usage, from its early use with the meaning you'd expect, through Dryden and Pope and Austen using it as an intensifier for true statements, through the newer use (but still dating back to the late 1700s!) as an intensifier for metaphorical statements. Apparently there were no objections to any of this until the early 1900s.

But the parts of the article that really finally made clear to me that I was being wrongheaded are the discussions of (a) “contranyms” (words that have two or more meanings that directly contradict each other) and (b) the word “really,” which also seems like it ought to be used only to affirm the truth of something but in fact is widely used (including by me) as an all-purpose intensifier.

So my head is now firmly convinced that there's nothing at all wrong with using “literally” that way.

But I am nonetheless likely to continue to have a gut negative reaction to it, alas.



Best recent line from a spam comment:

For that brief moment of today I had a little bit of sanity and than I had to hit the pavement to go look for a job. At around 9am I came to an impithany. I have no advantage entering the business world.

I was initially just amused, and then it occurred to me that this could be a useful way to track how well your comment spam is doing; you can include a nonstandard word and then search for it. But at the moment, there's only one Google result for impithany and it appears to be nonspam. So I'm back to being just amused.

Exasperated problems

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This just in from the AP, by way of AOL:

[...] spacewalking repairs may be needed sometime after Discovery leaves this weekend. The problem is exasperated by the fact that a period of intense sunlight on the space station is fast approaching[...].

—"Astronauts take 3rd, final spacewalk; valve stuck, by Marcia Dunn, AP

(It may have been corrected by the time you see this, though. I saw it an hour or two after it was posted.)

I know, I know, people make mistakes all the time, and I generally see no need to call attention to them. I was just amused by this one.

Inadvertent smiley


Just saw this in a blog entry at alternet:

One of the lawyers handling the case for the defendants (that is, defending the constitutionality of Prop. 8) sent us a note recently[....]

Presumably, the blog software is set to automatically turn "8)" into a smiley icon. Cute idea, but perhaps a little overzealous.

I've seen this sort of thing happen elsewhere, in software that turns ":)" into a smiley icon. But a colon is much less likely than an 8 to appear just before a close-paren in ordinary English text.

Placeholders appear in newspaper

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Some years back, I saw an employment ad for a major computer company in which all the text said "Lorem ipsum." Clearly someone was supposed to fill in actual copy, but had neglected to do so.

Something similar, though less extreme, happened in the San Diego Union-Tribune the other day, when their new automated pagination system made some mistakes:

A front-page story sends the reader to A10 to continue the story but you won't find the story title. Instead, you'll find the word "Slug"[...]. Below that, you'll find the phrase "Three lines of jumphed right in here, yuppers."

(And btw, I hadn't previously encountered the word "jumphed," but I like it. In case it's not clear, it refers to a "jump headline." See also the question of whether to use jump heds or jump words.)


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Best spam subject line of the week:


I thought perhaps a HUDLOOM was a weaving device containing a Heads-Up Display. Or perhaps some kind of magical thingy from a Harry Potter book.

Sadly, it appears to be simply a misspelling of "hoodlum." Still, I was entertained, and thought you might be too.

Also of note is this line from the body of the message, which caught my eye during the two seconds in which I briefly glanced at the email looking for more hudloom info:

The above listed names are been traced/investigated by our team and some of them have elope the country[....]

A nicely poetic way of describing someone fleeing the law, I guess.

I know it's not good form to mock non-fluent English speakers. But I sometimes can't resist.

Cherubim, Seraphim, and otherim


Something I've been seeing unusually often lately: use of "-im" words as singular.

The "-im" suffix, in words derived from Hebrew, is generally a masculine plural, as far as I can tell (I'm sure Shmuel or others will correct me if that's wrong). So words like "cherubim," "seraphim," "Nephilim," "dybbukim," "Hasidim," "kibbutzim," "klezmorim," and "goyim" are plural.

In English, other plural forms are often acceptable. For example, it's fine in English to say "cherubs," "seraphs," "dybbuks," and even "goys." (We usually talk about the Nephilim in plural; I don't think I've seen "Nephil" singular.)

But in all those cases, it's not correct to use the "-im" forms as singular. * "A Nephilim walks into a bar" is grammatically wrong; likewise * "Wow, that cherubim is totally hot."

I imagine that part of the confusion comes from Madeleine L'Engle's A Wind in the Door, in which there's a character who's referred to as a cherubim. But even there, L'Engle was aware that that's nonstandard:

Calvin made a sound which, if he had been less astonished, would have been a laugh. "But cherubim is plural."

The fire-spouting beast returned, "I am practically plural. The little boy thought I was a drive of dragons, didn't he? [...]"

A Wind in the Door, p. 56 of (I guess) the 1974 Dell edition

Of course, this is only an issue for -im words that come from Hebrew. For example, "victim," "verbatim," "grim," "disclaim," "denim," and "Sondheim" are not plurals.

Words easily confused #19

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Time for another installment in my Words easily confused series. (For more recent installments, see the errors category of this blog.)

As usual, an asterisk indicates an incorrect-usage example. I made up all the examples; they’re not quotes from anyone in particular.

This time around, for all the items that are on the Common Errors in English page or in the Eggcorns database, I've just provided links rather than comments.

bellow for below
Just a typo, but a spellchecker won't catch it.
conscience for conscious
Amazed I haven't mentioned this one before; very common error.
envelop for envelope
Common error.
hair-brained for hare-brained
Common error; also eggcorn.
lumpen for lumpy
The definition of "lumpen" is a little complicated, but in essence the term refers to lower-class people. It has nothing to do with being lumpy.
moral for morale
Common error.
nuptual for nuptial
This is one that I often get wrong, embarrassingly. Common error.
palette cleanser for palate cleanser
I saw this twice in an hour, in two different places, back in May. Common error.
Writers often say "she palmed the pill" to mean "she shook the pill out of the bottle and into her palm," not realizing that the verb "palm" has specific connotations of stealth. It's what magicians do, for example: they palm items to make them seem to disappear.
peddle for pedal
Common error; also eggcorn.
queue for cue
As in * "That's my queue to say..." Common error; also eggcorn.
sometimes for sometime
This one's a little tricky. "Sometime" can mean either "former" ("my sometime occupation") or "at some point" ("come see me sometime"). "Sometimes" has a similar meaning to the latter, but not, in my usage, to the former; I can't say * "my sometimes occupation." However, MW11 has an entry for "sometimes" as an adjective meaning "sometime," dating back to the 16th century or so, so apparently I'm wrong about this. Still, I don't recommend this usage.
wail (or wale) for whale
Most commonly in "wail away" or "wail on"; to "whale" or "whale on" something is to strike, hit, or thrash it. "Wail away on the guitar" might be correct in some contexts, but most of the time it's a mistake. Common error; also eggcorn.
wile away for while away
Common error.
wiz kid for whiz kid
Clearly an eggcorn, but not listed yet in the eggcorn database. A whiz kid is someone who is a whiz at something; the word "whiz" may ultimately derive from "wizard" (MW11 is uncertain), but "wiz kid" is incorrect. I imagine part of the confusion here might derive from the line from The Wizard of Oz: "You'll find he is a whiz of a wiz, if ever a wiz there was!"
woebegotten for woebegone? or maybe for misbegotten?
Is this a regionalism of some sort? I've seen it a couple of times now, and I'm always a little mystified.
ya'll for y'all
This is just a misspelling, or maybe I mean mispunctuation. Apostrophes go where letters are missing; in this case, the apostrophe marks the missing "ou". There wouldn't be any reason for the apostrophe to appear after the "a." A remarkable number of well-educated people were never taught that apostrophes denote missing letters (or numbers), and thus ended up with some odd ideas about apostrophe use in certain contexts. (Yes, there are other correct uses for apostrophes too. But there's always a reason for their presence in any given context; they're not just flavoring to be sprinkled over a word.)

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Errors category.

Epigrams is the previous category.

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