Un-spell-check-able 'atomic typos' in digital age hard to find

When American web reporter Amanda Hess recently wrote an article on her TBD blog summarising a recent study that “one in three black men who have sex with me is HIV positive” — read that quote again, O quickly-scanning Digital Reader! — she quickly realised the typo immediately after writing the story after a kind person tweeted the typo at her, and in internet time, she fixed it and wrote a prominent correction.

This all happened within ten minutes. Days later, some blogs started picking up on the correction she wrote. Since TBD’s corrections appear prominently in red on the top of posts, it is most likely that few blogs would have picked up on the typo had it not been accompanied by the prominent correction explaining the error.

Even though the typo was caught immediately and fixed immediately, the TBD correction caught the eyes and ears of the blogosphere, and the correction notice was tweeted, Facebooked and Romesko’d from sea to shining sea.

It’s been dubbed “the correction heard ’round the world” and it was.

Here’s the correction: “This blog post originally stated that one in three black men who have sex with me is HIV positive. In fact, the statistic applies to black men who have sex with men.”

Hess’ original typo was more than the common run-of-the-mill everyday typo. It is a good example of what in 2002 former newspaper editor C..F. Hanif called an “atomic typo” — apparently because the typing mistake is so small and minute that it’s almost like an atomic particle.

Spell checker applications cannot “see” atomic typos, because, of course, the word is spelled correctly. It’s just out of context for what the writer meant to type into his or her computer screen.

Hanif coined the term and it’s become a part of newsroom lore ever since, athough not everyone’s heard of it yet.

There are many examples of unspellcheckable typos, so perhaps it’s time to turn the term atomic typo into a global meme.

More examples of atomic typos? How about typing ”Governor Christ” instead of ”Governor Crist” as the New York Times wrote in a recent memo that went viral; or “unclear” instead of “nuclear”; or ”sedan” instead of “Sudan”.

Or typing “widow-shopping” for “window-shopping”, as this scribbler did when he edited a weekly paper in Alaska in the 1980s.

The problem in the digital age is that we rely too much on spell checkers to flag words that may not be spelled correctly. As you know, spell checkers may be stand-alone capable of operating on a block of text, or as part of a larger application, such as a word processor.

While the first spell checkers were widely available on mainframe computers in the late 1970s, the first spell checkers for personal computers did not appear until 1980.

Spell checkers have one major flaw: they cannot “see” words that are spelled correctly but are wrong for the intended context. Call them atomic typos — “c*nt” for “count” is another one that has slipped through the cracks in the machine, according to one mischievous punter in Scotland.

The point is that we need a set of human eyes on copy to get it right.

In Hess’ case, her website’s boss did not provide her with a proofreader or copy editor, and she therefore relied on her trusty spell checker before she pushed “send”. Little did she know the havoc her miniscule atomic typo’s subsequent correction was to create!

Some 20 years ago, almost foreseeing future atomic typos of the internet-fueled digital age, Jerrold Zar and Mark Eckman co-wrote an amusing poem of 225 words — which contained 123 incorrectly used words.

While most spell checkers used in a 1991 lab experiment gave the text a pass, a human reader in 2010 (with a pair of human eyes and half a human brain) will quickly “see” that many words were used incorrectly — intentionally, of course, to make a point!

Test yourself here.

Note to readers in the vapoursphere: Any typos , atomic or otherwise, in the above post are the soul fault of this reporter and no one else. Mea gulpa.

Atomic Typo Poem – 1991

I have a spelling checker,
It came with my PC.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.
Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your sure reel glad two no.
Its vary polished in it’s weigh.
My checker tolled me sew.
A checker is a bless sing,
It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
It helps me right awl stiles two reed,
And aides me when eye rime.
Each frays come posed up on my screen
Eye trussed too bee a joule.
The checker pours o’er every word
To cheque sum spelling rule.
Bee fore a veiling checker’s
Hour spelling mite decline,
And if we’re lacks oar have a laps,
We wood bee maid too wine.
Butt now bee cause my spelling
Is checked with such grate flare,
Their are know fault’s with in my cite,
Of nun eye am a wear.
Now spelling does knot phase me,
It does knot bring a tier.
My pay purrs awl due glad den
With wrapped word’s fare as hear.
To rite with care is quite a feet
Of witch won should bee proud,
And wee mussed dew the best wee can,
Sew flaw’s are knot aloud.
Sow ewe can sea why aye dew prays
Such soft wear four pea seas,
And why eye brake in two averse
Buy righting want too pleas.