Atomic typo – yes, that’s really a thing


Malapropisms, the topic of my last post, can occur in writing but most often you hear them in speech. As an editor, I am  usually correcting writing not speaking (although you’d be amazed at how many garrulous people become carefully articulate once I tell them my job), so I thought I should give some real-world examples of errors I see. Most of these are examples of typos, rather than malapropisms (where the person genuinely believes they’ve used the right word) or of spelling mistakes (where the person knows which word they want, they just don’t know which letters need to go in it).

This is a list of examples I’ve seen that the authors (and spell check) would have missed because they are actual words, just not the words that were wanted, and they are words that come up all the time in the corporate/academic writing that I’m working on. It turns out that this kind of mistake has a name, atomic typo, due to its small size and relatively large punch – it can create a big difference in meaning, as anyone who has typed ‘pubic’ instead of ‘public’ will know.

The term ‘atomic typo’ was coined in 2002 and since then it has appeared in various blogs and newspapers but doesn’t seem to be in common usage (it returns only just over 3000 results on Google!). Not all words lend themselves to these sorts of errors; if you mistyped ‘photosynthetic’ you probably wouldn’t get another word that a spell check would miss. However, some words are very prone to being mistyped; in fact, ‘fife’ is the word most likely to be mistyped to give another extant word, with 199 possible mistypings. Yes, someone has done the maths on this. Lucky for me, ‘fife’ doesn’t come up very often in my work.

So, here are some that I do find:

  • asses for assess
  • casual for causal
  • conversation for conservation
  • county for country
  • heath for health
  • mange for manage
  • mangers for managers
  • pubic for public

What can you do about these errors? Not much, except pay attention to the ones you are prone to making and check them every time you type them. Some of them are easier to see than others – for example, you can imagine it’s very easy to type ‘wad’ in place of ‘was’, but people mostly see those errors quickly and fix them. My list above is small, but it is of genuine errors I see in reports.

You can run spell checks for the words that wouldn’t normally occur in your work, such as ‘asses’ and ‘mange’ (depending on your field, of course – that may not help people working in veterinary science), and you can do this across whole folders as well as individual documents. It’s a good idea to spend the extra minute to run these checks; here’s a poem that expresses the joy of finding – after publication – a typo that slipped through.

The typographical error is a slippery thing and sly
You can hunt til you are dizzy, but it somehow will get by.
Til the forms are off the presses, it is strange how still it keeps.
It shrinks down in a corner and it never stirs or peeps.
That typographical error, too small for human eyes.
Til the ink is on the paper, when it grows to mountain size.
The boss, he stares with horror, then he grabs his hair and groans.
The copyreader drops his head upon his hands and moans.
The remainder of the issue may be clean as clean can be,
But the typographical error is the only thing you see.

(credit to ericshackle@ for this, in the comments of the atomic typo article link)

Update: additions to this post as they come in:

  • casual for causal
  • diary for dairy
  • emphasises for emphases
  • infarction for infraction
  • later for latter
  • seal level rises for sea level rises
  • steam for stream
  • medial used in place of medical (thanks, Erin)
  • purse used in place of pursue (thanks, Erin)
  • costal for coastal

11 thoughts on “Atomic typo – yes, that’s really a thing

  1. I thought of you the other day when hearing someone say that ‘it would be an infarction of the law’ – it took all of my self control not to correct them !!! I just had a private giggle 🙂

  2. Hi Ruth – indeed! I’m an editor in Canberra, and my friend Liana, who I think you used to work with in Brisbane, recently referred me to your delightful blog. One of my colleagues has been a huge fan of my editing services ever since the day I corrected his ‘public’ to ‘public’, and it is now one of the standard tests I run when editing or proofreading. ‘Asses’ is another blooper I see a lot. Oh, and what about auto-correct errors? The other day my boss wrote ‘exasperate’ when he meant ‘exacerbate’. Whoops 😉 Keep up the good work …

  3. Oh my goodness … guess I just made an auto-correct error of my own! I meant, of course, that I corrected ‘pubic’ to ‘public’. How embarrassing.

  4. Was hippy to see this peace today since i am the blog who has been popularizing the atomic typo meme since i first encountered the CF Hanif coined term in his newspaper online a few years back and that was my oped in the China Pest link above and my own original AT blog is hear: http// – so I am glad this meme is catching on. Fun, too. MORE MORE! danny dan bloom in Taiwan.

  5. There was an amazing atomic typo in the Taipei Times the udder day. They reprinted an Observer UK article about selfies and the first sentence which must be been part of an autocorrect thing, said “Just point your camera at a 45 degree Centigrade angle and snap away…” I later told the editor and they corrected it online. SMILE

  6. 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.

  7. The term ‘atomic typo’ was coined in 2002 and since then it has appeared in various blogs and newspapers but doesn’t seem to be in common usage (it returns only just over 3000 results on Google!). ***MOSTLY because it is a newsroom term for editors and copy desk people. Even reporters don’t know this term. the average joe or jane has no real reason to know this word but it is slowly catching on amongst newsies and i heard a rumor that Wordspy dot com will soon list it, and i think Urban Dictionary already lists it. WINK./ danny

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