Thursday, July 18, 2013

Freelance Writer Dan Bloom on Spell Check and "Atomic Typos"

-----Original Message-----
From: Dan Bloom <>
To: dan bloom <>
Sent: Wed, Jul 17, 2013 7:38 am
Subject: Four Reasons Why Spellcheck Cannot Check 'Atomic Typos'

Four Reasons Why Spellcheck Cannot Check 'Atomic Typos'

By Dan Bloom

Everyone knows what a ''typo'' is, and we all make them from time to
time, in emails and college term papers and in published ebooks. 
But what is an "atomic typo"?

I've been following the term for a few years now, and from I gather
it's an incorrect word in a text that a
context-challenged spellcheck system is unable to detect because the
spelling of the word -- while not incorrect and therefore not
technically a "typo" -- it is just different from the
actual word that was intended.

Examples are, for example, unclear for nuclear, former Florida
Governor Chris for Governor Christ, sedan for Sudan.

The term "atomic typo" has been in use in computerized newsrooms and
publishing offices for over ten years, although its use in common
conversation and news articles is very rare. In fact, most newspaper
language mavens, like the late William Safire of the New York Times, had never
heard of it before it was brought to their attention by some interested

Such typos are called "atomic typos" apparently because the mistake is
very small, minute, just one or two letters in the wrong order or in
the wrong place, and like an atomic particle or a sub-atomic particle,
the typo is deemed to be very small, and therefore "atomic" in nature.

In other words, an atomic typo is a small, very small typograhic
mistake, that ends up making a big difference in the meaning.

C.F. Hanif, a former editorial ombudsman at the Palm Beach Post, used
this term in print one day in the early 2000s and it stuck. So all credit
goes to Mr Hanif for coming the term. (He has now left the newspaper
business and serves as a Muslim imam in Florida.)

So it appears that an atomic typo is a very small typo, one letter or
two letters, done in a very tiny, atomic kind of way, like an atomic
particle, as if one small difference makes the difference.

Dr Peter J. Farago, Editor of CHEMISTRY IN BRITAIN, now called
CHEMISTRY WORLD, wittily presented observations on "Editing: Good and
Bad, Necessary or Not."
He sees the purpose of an editor to be "grit in your oyster" and to
avoid famous atomic typos such as "Unclear Physics." Did he mean
nuclear physics?

So have you spotted any good atomic typos recently? And can technology
come up with an advanced spellcheck platform that could spot and
correct "atomic typos"?

I rather doubt it. We will always need the human eye. And mind.

Dan Bloom is a freelance rider (sic) in Taiwan. This is reprinted with his permission.
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1 comment:

  1. A friend tells me: " When I taught legal research and writing at Widener Law School years ago, I used to devote a whole class to a collection of cases in which a single typo had led to litigation, in some cases years of litigation.''