Types of Typos

When solutions end up creating more problems.

Types of Typos

When solutions end up creating more problems.

Earlier, people just made typos. They might write “onw” instead of “one” or “teh” instead of “the” because their fingers touched slightly wrong keys in a slightly wrong order.

This was when typing was done on typewriters and computers.

Then came cellphones. And with cellphones came the ability to make typos even if you did press the correct keys.


The idea of assigning alphabets to numbers is not new. Advertisers use it to make their phone-numbers easy to remember. If G, H and I make “4” and A, B and C make “2”, then you don’t have to remember 166-001-46632 to buy a bike. Just dial 166–001-HONDA.

When cellphones arrived, people expanded the idea to let you type messages. Press 2 once to write “a”, twice to write “b”, and so on. (The alphabet starts at 2 because 1 is reserved for punctuation). By pressing the right numbers, you could type a full message.

But that can get tedious. Who’d want to press 44-33-555-555-666 just to say “hello”?

That’s why cellphones introduced a “predictive” mode. Instead of pressing a number multiple times to get to the correct letter, you press it once and the cellphone will guess which letters you meant to write.

This prediction is done with a dictionary. So you can press 43556, and the cellphone will know you meant “hello” rather than “ifklm” or “gdjjm”.

But sometimes, there are multiple matching words. 6663 can become either “none” or “mood”, while 7687 matches with “soup”, “pour”, “sour” and “pots”. If you end up with a wrong match, you can press “∗” till you reach the right one. But people sometimes don’t notice it’s the wrong match — which is why I keep telling people that I’m “travelling by cup”.

This kind of mistake is sometimes called a “texto”.


It’s not just cellphones where dictionaries cause mistakes. When people realised they were making typos, they also made tools to help detect them. Unfortunately, those tools ended up creating new, different kinds of typos of their own.

The first of those tools were the “spell checkers”, which put a red squiggly line under badly-spelled words — or rather, under all words that weren’t in their dictionaries. So if people typed “onw” instead of “one”, they would see a red squiggly line appear underneath, and go back and correct it.

But spell-checkers also made people lazier. Now, people didn’t manually check for errors. If there was no red squiggly line, they assumed the document was good to go.

That meant they missed mistakes which happened to be another word. If they wrote “the” instead of “they” or “buckled” instead of “bucked”, that didn’t show up in the spell-checker.

These typos are called “atomic typos” because the mistakes are very small like atoms, and can’t be detected by a spell-checker. Incidentally, atomic typos are also what make people write about “unclear power plants”.


Those aren’t the only mistakes spell-checkers can cause people to make: when you mis-type a word, you can click for suggestions on what the intended word could be. If you type “ptato” and see the red squiggly line, you don’t have to re-type the whole word. Just right-click, and you’ll get a menu suggesting “potato” and “tattoo”, so you can choose what you actually wanted.

But if you’re in a hurry, you might select the wrong option and not notice — especially if both words sound similar. That’s probably why I once found a copyright message, talking about “the copyright witch this book was published under”.

Because they’re made by the spell-checker, such errors are called “spellos”.


Not all spelling mistakes are by people writing using wrong things. Sometimes, the spelling is correct, but the computer reads them wrong.

Keyboards make things very easy for computers. Each keystroke means only one letter, and it’s usually obvious what that one letter is. When they’re trying to read from scanned pages, computers have to work much harder.

To read scanned pages, computers have to look at the black and white marks of the document, and compare them with pre-set black-and-white marks they already know about. They also have to figure out where one letter ends and the next one begins. Not surprisingly, they often make mistakes.

Some of the errors are easy to understand, like “lile” instead of “life” or “are” instead of “arc”. Other times are a bit weirder, like when “r” and “n” join to make “m”, or “and” turns into “anil”.

While most typos are related to key positions on a keyboard or words in a dictionary, these ones are about how the letters actually look. This kind of mistakes is also called a “scanno”, because it comes when you try to scan printed text. And it’s the reason you might find an ebook telling you about “camivorous plants”.


As you can see, technology has made typos go beyond spelling mistakes. There are so many different kinds, and so many different ways they can happen. With the emergence of autocorrect on smartphones, typos are only becoming more common in the modern world.

Some can be pretty furry, although most are not quite music to the cars.


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