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