Plausible typos

Some typos are more harder to detect than others.

I’m currently reading the 1989 Mandarin Paperbacks edition of C. J. Cherryh’s novel Downbelow Station, which is rife with the sort of typos that a spellchecker won’t catch, because the erroneous word is also a valid English word.

(Okay, “rife” is an exaggeration; I really only mean one every five or ten pages. But that still seems like a lot.)

But the ones in this book are even worse than the usual run of such typos, because in this case many of them are plausible substitute words.

A couple of examples:

One of them objected
Probably was meant to say None of them objected. (This one isn’t an exact quote, ’cause I neglected to write it down when I encountered it and can’t find it now.)
“We cope”
Almost certainly was meant to say We copy.
as she had always been with this father
Was meant to say with his father.

In all of those cases, not only a spellchecker but a grammar-checker would fail to catch the typo. It’s the kind of typo that you can only recognize by first understanding the meaning of the phrase as written; second noticing that the meaning seems out of sync with what’s going on, or unlikely to be said by that character; and third recognizing that a small change to one of the words would make much more sense.

(And the issue is exacerbated in this book by the author’s occasional penchant for unusual and slightly cryptic syntax, so some phrases that initially look like errors probably aren’t.)

This kind of thing is why I feel that we’re going to continue to need human copyeditors, at least until the advent of strong AI. For that second example, I can imagine a nonsentient machine-learning system reaching the point of recognizing that “We cope” is a less likely phrase than “We copy” in dialogue over a radio between spaceships in a military-focused science fiction novel; I can vaguely imagine something similar working for the third one; but I don’t see any way for a nonsentient system to recognize that “One” should “None” in that first example.

Hmm—while I’m here, let’s make a game of it: Come up with a phrase or sentence or paragraph that includes a plausible typo—an incorrect word that’s only (let’s say) a one-letter alteration of the right word, but that remains grammatically correct in its context.

7 Responses to “Plausible typos”

  1. JacobM

    As a pacifist, she refused to beat arms.

    Some of these, of course, could be corrected by an AI with access to Google Ngrams (or the equivalent) — “bear arms” is overwhelmingly more common than “beat arms”. But “one of them” is more common than “none of them”, so yeah, recognizing that example would depend on understanding what happens after an objection (and which phrasing implies that an objection occurred).

    We have nothing to wear but fear itself.

  2. irilyth

    The one that comes up *ALL THE DAMN TIME* for me: Not vs now.

    Dana is in town this week, so we’re not able to go out for lunch on Friday.

    The software has been upgraded, so we’re now going to rebuild the OS.

    Sooo many examples. And it’s not just a plausible alternative, it’s the exact opposite of what you were trying to say!

  3. -Ed.

    Semi-off-topic, but on the general topic of stuff that software finds it very difficult to catch but humans can catch easily is this article from Mark Liberman on the Language Log: Coherence of sentence sequences.

    It turns out that if you take a randomly-chosen two-sentence chunk out of a text (in English) and randomly rearrange the sentences, it’s usually fairly easy for a human (fluent in the language) to recognize which order is the original order. Computers can’t do that, at this point.

    It’s not entirely clear to me why this would be a useful task to teach a computer or a human to do, but I find it interesting that humans ‘learn’ to do it and computers don’t.


  4. Jed

    Two more that I recently encountered in print:

    • Instructions that said something like You have few options where it should have said You have a few options. I find this one especially interesting because the number of options could be the same in either case, but the tone ends up being almost the opposite of what was intended.
    • At the window screens a few months beat themselves softly senseless. That should have said moths. This is a case where the substitution doesn’t really make sense semantically, but is fine grammatically. (And ends up being kind of poetic.) This one is from Ted Mooney’s novel Easy Travel to Other Planets, p. 175.
  5. Jed

    Two more that I’ve encountered in the past:

    • immoral/immortal. “Her art was immor(t)al.”
    • uniformed/uninformed. “The desk was staffed with a uni(n)formed officer.”

    (Though the latter pair can also be distinguished by whether the word is preceded by a or an.)

  6. Jed

    Just happened across yet another one. I read a line from a Robert Louis Stevenson story as saying he was quietly taking Villon’s pulse, and thought that was a nice but odd thing for the character to do, checking to see whether Villon was okay. It wasn’t until a paragraph or so later that I understood that the character had really been taking Villon’s purse.

  7. Jed

    I’m amused to discover, two months after posting this entry, that the first sentence of this entry contained a typo of almost the sort described here. I somehow wrote that the book in question was published by Mandard; in reality, it was published by Mandarin. That’s not quite the same kind of typo, because it’s more than one letter changed, and because the core meaning of the sentence wasn’t changed; but close enough to amuse me.


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