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

Special effects affect me

Many people have trouble remembering when to use ‘affect’ and when to use ‘effect’. The basic rule is that ‘affect’ is a verb, and ‘effect’ is a noun (except for some less common usage, which is described later).

Affect – verb: to influence           Cold weather affects me.

(‘Affect’ as a verb is also used sometimes to mean ‘to put airs on’ – ‘She affected a sophisticated pose with her little finger.’ – Fowler’s says that this usage is of quite different origins to the more usual meaning of ‘to influence’.)

Effect – noun: the thing that causes some change    One cold weather effect is a numb nose.

There are a number of memory devices you can use for this one – the one that seems to have stuck in my head is to use the opposite of the obvious word trick: there is an ‘e’ in verb, so that should go with ‘effect’ but it doesn’t (because they’re opposite), so the verb is affect. This is somewhat laboured and possibly not very intuitive, but it has worked for me all these years.

Another way is to remember some example sentences, like the title of this post. You would know that in basic English sentences the word order is ‘something does something to something’. This is called subject, verb, object word order and it means that basic sentences have the structure of noun/verb/noun. Don’t worry if all that grammar terminology is meaningless; have a look at the table below:

Subject (noun or noun phrase) Verb (verb or verb phrase) Object (noun or noun phrase)
The boy kicked the ball.
Mary wrote a letter.
The brilliant Mets won the game.
Special effects saved the film.
Happy people influence everyone.
Happy people affect me.
Special effects affect me.
Cold weather affects me.
One cold weather effect is a numb nose.

So the special ‘effects’ (noun) have some influence, or ‘affect’ (verb) on people. Remember also that nouns are words that take plurals, so you’re often going to see ‘effects’ (more than one effect). Verbs are words that show tense and how many people are taking the action, so you’ll see ‘affected/affecting’ and ‘affects’ (I affect them; it affects me).

This is the most common use of these words. But in formal use they can occur as the opposite part of speech – and this complicates things and confuses people.

‘Effect’ can be a verb meaning ‘to bring about’: ‘The aim of the government policy on ice-cream is to effect change in eating habits of summer-stressed Australians.’ This one is usually used with the word ‘change’, but not necessarily. For example, you could say:

‘The medicine will effect her recovery’ (i.e. bring about her recovery)

which is different from:

‘The medicine will affect her recovery’ (have some influence on, but for better or worse is not known).

And ‘affect’ can be a noun used in psychology to describe a mood or how a person presents: ‘She arrived with a happy affect.’ This is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable (AFF-ect) as opposed to the pronunciation of the verb (aff-ECT).

Effect as a noun occurs 10–15 more times than effect as a verb, so there’s a good chance that’s the one you want. And affect as a noun occurs now only in psychology.

What about idioms? Some common expressions make use of ‘effect’: my personal effects; to take good effect; the after effect; the butterfly effect; in effect; something to that effect; snowball effect … these are all nouns, and all of them are ‘effect’ with an ‘e’.

Burchfield RW. 2000. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Peters. P. 1995. The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Grammar Girl:
And last, but not least, wikimedia commons for the image:


In all the turmoil around Craig Thomson and his use (or otherwise) of HSU credit cards to procure prostitution services for himself (or for someone else), I’d forgotten about this gem from December last year: Craig Thomson may also be a common plagiarist. His sources for a report about what Australia could learn from Europe’s GFC experience were, apparently, no more highbrow than what any school or university student pulling an all-nighter would have been able to find on Wikipedia and other freely available internet authorities.

He’s got off lightly, with the plagiarism scandal far outshone by his other alleged activities. Not everyone is so lucky: last month the Hungarian President, Pál Schmitt, quit his job under allegations that his Doctorate was largely the work of two other academics. In Germany, a similar case occurred in March last year when the Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was stripped of his PhD due to plagiarism. He resigned his position, which even spawned a Facebook page, ‘Wir wollen Guttenberg zurück’ (We want Guttenberg back) – it has more than 510,000 likes. In England, the London School of Economics has investigated claims of plagiarism and ghost-writing in the doctoral thesis  of Seif-al-Islam el-Qaddafi, and in Russia, Vladamir Putin’s thesis also came under fire for large sections of it possibly being the unattributed work of others; he, at least, has managed to stay where he is.

In music there have been some expensive cases, such as Michael Bolton’s  massive $5.4 million fine for plagiarism in 2000, and George Harrison’s payout of close to $600,000 in 1981, in a case that dragged on for years even after the decision was made. And in comedy last year, Jordan Paris ripped off jokes from other comedians, then apologised by … ripping off another comedian’s joke! It makes me want to tell you the one about the plagiarist who … but no, you’ll have heard it before.

The pejorative connotations of plagiarism are relatively new – years ago (we’re talking the 18th century) it was considered appropriate to copy the masters. It is still not uniformly regarded negatively; Helen Zhang talks here about the Chinese cultural values of rote learning and emulating teachers as a barrier to the developing scientific culture there. India has experienced a high profile case that affected both scientific and political circles – the science advisor to India’s Prime Minister had to apologise to scientific journal Advanced Materials for copying the work of other scientists.

That’s why I think that there’s something missing out of this list of 10 reasons why you should operate without copyeditors at your own risk; copyeditors pick up plagiarism. (Alright, it was maybe implied in reason 2: A libel suit for a carelessly written story can cost more than a copy editor’s salary.) I have certainly seen examples of it in my work. There’s something about a change of style, a familiar run of words or development of argument, a disconnect between paragraphs that alerts a sharp editor to when material may have been lifted. Often it’s just a matter of alerting the author to the correct attribution – all works build on the work of others, after all. The key is to acknowledge the giants on whose shoulders we stand.