Friday, August 29, 2008

Errors and Humanity

A recent article by Scott Abel on Content Wrangler about TEAL, a group whose quest is to correct the typographic errors of others, got me thinking about errors. That vector is intersecting with some reading I've been doing lately in "Orality and Literacy" by Walter Ong (at the suggestion of someone to one of my earlier blogs).

First of all, we sometimes misuse the word "typo" as in typographical error. According to Wikipedia, "A typographical error or typo is a mistake made during, originally, the manual type-setting (typography) of printed material, or more recently, the typing process. The term includes errors due to mechanical failure or slips of the hand or finger, but excludes errors of ignorance." Checking other dictionaries supports that definition.

The mistake discussed in the Content Wrangler article failed to meet these criteria on two counts: (1) The mistake occurred in a hand-written sign, which would make it a chirographic error and (2) It was not a mechanical slip; it was a mistake in applying the apostrophe rule.

Scott and I had a fun discussion and I'm not blogging to belabor my point; it's just that I have a genuine interest in the different ways we make mistakes and would like to explore it a bit--not sure this will go anywhere useful. Here's my starting taxonomy:

  • Typographical--More or less mechanical slips such as wrong letters or metatheses, such as my habitual typing of "form" when I mean "from."
  • Oral--Where we use homonyms inadvertently, such as "there" for "their" or "too" for "two." Almost a mechanical slip, but not really, and one not caused by ignorance but rather by the hasty grabbing by our mind of a spelling from the wrong box but one located near the correct box. I also include subject/verb disagreements caused by singular words that sound plural, such as "My interest in this area are clear."
  • Drops--Where a word that was in the writer's head just never makes it to the page, e.g., "I've been meaning write you..." I think this is caused by the writer's thoughts getting ahead of his fingers. It's often missed in rereading because of the Gestalt of filling in blanks based on knowing the broader context.
  • Spelling--No accident, the writer didn't know the correct spelling.
  • Punctuation--No accident, the writer thought there should be a comma and there really should not have been.
  • Grammar--Breaking the rules that define conjugation and inflection.
  • Usage--Wrong word for the context, such as , uh, typo to describe a punctuation mistake on a hand-written sign (OK, I am belaboring the point).
  • Factual--What the writer said can be refuted by evidence or authoritative sources, e.g., "There are 51 states in the US."
  • Logical--The structure of the discourse and the premises do not support a conclusion.
The last three--usage, factual, and logical--are major errors because they lead to miscommunication. When the others do not miscommunicate (and sometimes they do), they are minor infractions that might reflect badly on the writer but do not mislead the reader.

I think people worry too much about the minor infractions in instant messages and blogs. How often do we get an IM with a typo or oral only to get an immediate follow up like "oops, I meant two not too :-0 " Personally I think the error is part of the oral nature of IMs and the correction does more harm by interrupting the flow of the otherwise spontaneous conversation. In my comment to Scott's article I wrote "technical communicators at their worse." Oops , I know it should have been "worst" but that's the nature of a free and spontaneous engagement using language.

I'm not advocating that we get lax in our own standards, particularly as they apply to our professional, written communications. But let's be more forgiving of these patterns (yes, that's what they are, more so than mistakes) when they occur with others. Just because a restaurant can't get the menu right, doesn't mean they can't cook. Put the red pen away and enjoy your meal.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If I read some instructions and understand what they mean, I'm fairly forgiving of many other errors. But I know writers who get so keyed up about small grammatical errors or typos that they don't see the bigger picture. They think everything's ok if the grammar is correct and they can't find a spelling error. I've seen quite a few instructions that had no obvious flaws but were confusing or flat-out wrong if you actually tried to use them.

I don't mean to say grammatical errors are not important, but there can be a balance.