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Why am substituting one bird for another when I type?
September 22, 2008 11:47 AM   Subscribe

I'm making a certain type of typo more and more frequently. Should I be worried?

I know everyone does this to some extent, but I've greatly increased the amount of word substitutions I make when I type. I read my sentences back later, and I find I've written things like this:

To free or not to be. Hat is the question.

Most of my mistakes are of that sort: substituting rhyming words for the words I mean to type. When I proof my text, I'm always totally surprised to see the substitutions. I have no sense of making them when I'm typing.

Now, this is probably a wasted question, because I think I can answer it myself. Over the last few years, my typing speed has increased tenfold. I can now type almost as fast as I can think. And I've noticed the errors increasing as my typing has gotten faster.

But I also know that people make these sorts of substitutions when they've suffered some sort of brain disorder. (I'm embarrassed by how hypochondriacal this sounds.)

I don't have any other symptoms. I feel fine and healthy. My thinking is clear. My motor skills are the same as always. I'm just spooked by this sudden onset of typing gaffs. When I read my words back, I find at least one or two per paragraph.

I know you're not my doctor, but do you think this is even slightly worth worrying about?
posted by grumblebee to Health & Fitness (36 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
This happens to me when I'm under stress, preoccupied, or not sleeping enough.

Do any of these things apply to you? Any major changes recently--new job, pregnant wife, that kind of thing?

Absent other symptoms, i.e., "suddenly I smell oranges everywhere," I wouldn't be worried.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:05 PM on September 22, 2008


If it is worrysome please let me know the cure. What comes out of my fingers is disturbingly different from what goes through my brain. I regularly type the wrong letters. Your example could be put down to a missed keystroke "Th" -> "H" so I don't think it's too serious. But FWIW I do it AL LTH ETIM E.
posted by GuyZero at 12:05 PM on September 22, 2008


GuyZero, I'm less worried by the fact that I do it than the fact that I'm doing it way more than I ever did before. I mean at least ten times more. (But, like I said, I'm also typing ten times faster.)

It's not wrong keypresses; it's real word substitution. I'll write things like "Was the dentist a plan or a woman?"

A Terrible Llama: I'm always a bit stressed. But I'm no more stressed than usual right now.
posted by grumblebee at 12:12 PM on September 22, 2008


Doesn't seem like it's worth worrying about to me. But if you are worrying about it, it couldn't hurt to ask a doctor.
posted by meta_eli at 12:12 PM on September 22, 2008


By the way, other than the substitutions, my writing is pretty typo-free. I don't transpose letters (teh) or anything. When I proof my writing, it looks really meticulous and clear except for the odd rhyming substitutions.

I really hate them, because sometimes -- when I'm dashing off a quick email or whatever -- I don't want to spend time proofing it. I don't mind if there's a "teh" or the like in it. But I risk being totally misunderstood if I write "tomorrow, I'm going to buy a star" when I mean "tomorrow, I'm going to buy a car." It's odd to find ten such mistakes in one email.
posted by grumblebee at 12:16 PM on September 22, 2008


You know, for what it's worth, I've found that I've started to do this a bit after I've spent some time typing on my iPhone -- I was thinking it might be something about the built-in word corrector thing the iPhone has, and my getting used to being able to just kind of approximate words and spellings and have the phone guess what I mean. And also speed -- I make these kinds of mistakes more often when I'm typing fast.

Do you mix up words like that when you speak? Or just when you type?
posted by mothershock at 12:17 PM on September 22, 2008


I don't have an answer for you then, but when I do this it's also complete word substitution, like 'ate' instead of 'eight'.

Also, I once wrote 'battle' instead of 'bananas' on a shopping list--so it's not just words that rhyme or that are otherwise in the same cognitive bucket -- I've done it with totally unrelated words.

On one hand, I think this is a function of moving too fast and being preoccupied, but I also have a few minor linguistic blindspots--like, forever, I've used the word 'lighthouse' when I mean 'windmill'.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:19 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm less worried by the fact that I do it than the fact that I'm doing it way more than I ever did before. I mean at least ten times more. (But, like I said, I'm also typing ten times faster.)

I don't know anything about the medical aspects of this, but you could try writing with a pen and paper and see if you make a larger than normal amount of mistakes with that method.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:22 PM on September 22, 2008


Oh, I have that too -- in my case it's accidentally swapping "b" for "d" or "p" for "q", or vice versa. I've also done the "teh" for "the" a lot. I think it's just fast typing making us careless rather than anything to worry about.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:30 PM on September 22, 2008


I think it's because your typing is on autopilot, almost like an autonomous process in your mind. It's kind of listening to your thoughts and recording them, and sometimes it hears it wrong.

(Or at least that's what I tell myself to convince myself I'm not going crazy.)
posted by smackfu at 12:34 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


If it's not a medical problem, then it's an interesting phenomenon. It must be two parts of my brain running at cross-purposes, unable to come to the correct conclusion because I'm typing so fast. I'd be interested to know if there's any literature about the neurology of typos.

One interesting (or maybe the opposite of interesting) thing: I never find myself making embarrassing Freudian-slip typos. Like I never type breast when I mean vest. It's always more mundane stuff, like club instead of dub.
posted by grumblebee at 12:37 PM on September 22, 2008


I make really embarrassing misspellings occasionally when I'm typing - often phonetic things like typing "wun" for "one." I realize what I've written immediately afterwards, but it still makes me feel pretty dim-witted. Then again, I'm still pretty good at sudoku, so I don't think our minds are going just yet.

I'm not a psychologist or a neurologist or anything of that nature, but I think it's probably a similar phenomenon to what happens when you're writing something down and listening to something unrelated, and you write a stray word from what you're hearing by accident. People learn spoken language before written language, so if you're typing too fast there might be a delay in your brain converting things from spoken to written language, and errors such as rhyming substitutions would pop up. This is all an uneducated guess on my part though.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:04 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


I know next-to-nothing about brain disorder, but from my experience with serious mental illness (working as a mental health therapist in two in-patient psych hospitals), the type of error you're talking about, when linked with a serious mental illness (as far as I know, schizophrenia is the only one this is associated with), tends to come along with many other symptoms, like erratic behavior, paranoia, hearing voices, etc. I have never heard of this being the *first* symptom that someone (or his/her family/friends) noticed.
posted by dreamphone at 1:10 PM on September 22, 2008


Do you mix up words like that when you speak? Or just when you type?

I'd be really interested in grumblebee's answer to this, though I suspect it'd be harder to catch yourself when speaking unless the other person said something. I was going to ask a very similar question to his, though my problem is almost exclusively when speaking, and it's more like making typos while speaking - "terrible" gets prounounced as "terbeleh" or "accidentally" becomes "accidentalous."
posted by desjardins at 1:11 PM on September 22, 2008


I do this by replacing letters with numbers that begin with the letter I was going to type. It's a bit strange, but I catch myself writing things like "5orever" or "7ensation". It seems to only happen with the first letter, when I'm in a rush. Also, I'll type out homophones pretty frequently when in a hurry (e.g. It's a pleasure to meat you under this blew sky). In short, the problem's probably a lot more common then you think. I'm not sure that that's tremendously helpful, but it seems strange that we're all going mad, lol.
posted by bookwo3107 at 1:27 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


As far as I know, I don't do it when I speak. If I do, no one has told me. I'm pretty sure my wife would call me on it if I did it.
posted by grumblebee at 1:32 PM on September 22, 2008


Does the problem go away if you type at a slower speed? If it does, I think you can chalk it up to typing more quickly.

Some people do develop subtle symptoms at the onset of a larger problem. If you are worried about it you should probably see a neurologist.
posted by yohko at 1:37 PM on September 22, 2008


But for me, typing is more like thinking than speaking. I type way faster than I speak. Maybe that's the issue.

Maybe it stores words that sound similar together, such as groove and move.

I'm imagining that my brain is trying to think of the word for a little slot. It knows the approximate sound, so it reaches for words in the "oove" category. If it had a fraction of a second longer to make a decision, it would narrow the search down to groove. But since I set up a rhythm when I type, it's forced to just pick an "oove" word NOW because my fingers are already about to type the next word.

When I speak, since I speak more slowly that I type, maybe it has time to resolve the choice to the right word.

How's that for some bullshit armchair neurology?

---

One preview: "finders are already..." instead of "fingers are already." That's a much simpler typo than I usually make -- just a single letter substitution. But I noticed something I never noticed before: The "d" in finders is also in already. One example is too small a sample size, but I wonder if my brain is getting mixed up between the word I'm typing and a word to come.

On previewing again: "sample side, but I wonder." Hmm.
posted by grumblebee at 1:41 PM on September 22, 2008


Does the problem go away if you type at a slower speed? If it does, I think you can chalk it up to typing more quickly.

Probably, but typing slower is a completely different activity than typing full speed. I mean, when I'm typing full speed, I barely notice I'm typing. It just feels like I'm thinking onto the screen. It's like the difference between breathing normally and thinking about each breath.
posted by grumblebee at 1:43 PM on September 22, 2008


typing slower is a completely different activity than typing full speed

Well, it sounds like your skill level at full speed typing is lower than your skill level at slower speed typing. You say this is something you have started doing in the past few years, and that your errors increased when you started doing this. I take that to mean that there was never a time when this full speed typing was not error-free, that is to say, your skills at full speed typing have not deteriorated.

So you have picked up a new skill, and you don´t do it perfectly. Well, most people don´t perform new skills perfectly, so you shouldn´t be worried.
posted by yohko at 1:56 PM on September 22, 2008


Does the word you substitute for the correct one tend to be the more common or popular word for your personal vocabulary? I ask because I've noticed this effect when playing a game like Wordtwist (wherein you unscramble letters to find words). I'll mean to type "posh," my brain is saying "ooh, it's posh, posh, posh..." and my fingers are typing "shop", because I'm going so fast that muscle memory is invoked rather than what my brain is asking my fingers to do for the sake of the game.
posted by xo at 2:02 PM on September 22, 2008


But for me, typing is more like thinking than speaking. I type way faster than I speak. Maybe that's the issue.

This is me, all the time. Anyone who's been in chat with me knows I can go a mile a minute, but if I'm not careful I'll have all kinds of weird words going on. That's where Word is useful with its grammar checks.

I'd put it down to stress, excitement, and thinking faster than you can type.

And also, check to see if this is happening when you write by hand, as burnmp3s suggested.
posted by lysdexic at 3:00 PM on September 22, 2008


I've noticed a significant increase in these types of errors for me when I used to be able to pride myself on my accuracy. I've been a fast typist for years, so that's not a change for me. I also have problems remembering details of trivial conversations, say from a week ago, whereas, again, in the past, I used to be quite accurate. Of course, now I have to proof everything, and write everything down, and I was wondering, I was hoping it was a natural aspect of aging, and not early dementia or earlier years of drinking catching up with me. I'm 41 and relieved I'm not the only one experiencing this.
posted by b33j at 3:02 PM on September 22, 2008


I'd just like to throw in there that it may be the keyboard. My co-worker mentioned the other day that since we've gotten the new slim, metal Apple keyboards, his misspelled words have gone through the roof. I can't say that I disagree.
posted by Sreiny at 3:29 PM on September 22, 2008


What makes this fascinating to me is, unlike some people have suggested, I don't think that you're thinking faster than you type (no offense). I think you are reaching the brain speed limit for typing. You're starting to type too fast for the human brain. Sort of like turning some sort of mechanical machine up too high. It starts jamming. I think your typing speed is just revealing a weak link in the human brain. I've done the exact thing you're talking about. Typing out a sentence with a 'typo' that is an entire word substitution. And when that happens, invariably, that word is not a synonym that makes sense in context. It's a word that rhymes.

The reason I think your typing might just be revealing a brain function 'feature' is, I have a related item. Sometimes, when I'm trying to think of a word, but I'm drawing a blank, my brain keeps throwing a word at me that's wrong. Completely wrong, and I know it. But when I eventually come up with the answer, it rhymes with the crazy guess my brain was giving me earlier.

An example might clarify.

I'm drawing a blank on a word I need to complete a sentence. I'm talking about the monopoly guy, and I say he has a top hat and a .... [drawing a blank on the word for that eyeball thing he wears that hangs on a chain. Like glasses, but for only one eye. Barnacle! my brain says. No that's obviously not it. What is it... Barnacle!. NO!] A minute later, I'll remember that it's monocle.

That seems related to me. My brain is scrambling for the word, and digs up barnacle. Clearly not something you wear on your eye. But it rhymes. That almost always happens to me when I'm drawing a blank on a word. I know the word. When I finally come up with it, I know I've got it. Somehow, my brain can't look it up properly. It's got a faulty cataloging program.

I think your typing issue is the same brain quirk. Only you're typing so fast that it's showing up regularly.

Cool.


ps. How fast do you type?
posted by gummo at 3:59 PM on September 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


I do this too. I am also a fast (if often inaccurate) touch typist. I can blat out whole streams of words without ever thinking about them, as though my hands know the movements for a word. I think this sort of whole word glitch is a function of how well-automated your typing has become. It's the kind of mistake that only someone who's really good at typing, someone who's really learned the keystrokes for every common word, can make.

My guess is that your typing has gone to the "next level".
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:31 PM on September 22, 2008


Can't believe nobody's come out with the term for this: Spoonerisms. I could have sworn that Oliver Sacks had some writings on the actual neurobiology of this, but now I can't google it up for some reason. Maybe I invented it.

But you could read some Oliver Sacks anyway, for related interests' sake.

By the way, I've been making odd substitutions in typing lately, too. I think it's my brain. It's always been against me.
posted by Aquaman at 6:32 PM on September 22, 2008


Well, after chemo in 2005/06 and 4 aneurysms in September 2006 my typing dramatically got worse in exactly similar ways you're mentioning.

Part of it is I think the longer one is on the web the less patience one has with proofreading. Maybe it's the excitement of the conversation or impatience, maybe just wanting not to have to do the dirty work of going over each letter of a comment or email, nitpicking.

What worked to help get my synapses on track again was taking calcium citrate-magnesium citrate with Vitamin D. One at night. Apparently people absorb less calcium and magnesium with age and less Vitamin D if one gets less sunlight. (I can imagine ikkyu2 rolling his eyes at that but it helped me).
posted by nickyskye at 7:40 PM on September 22, 2008


Does the word you substitute for the correct one tend to be the more common or popular word for your personal vocabulary?

I don't think so, but I'll pay better attention to that.

How fast do you type?

I've never timed myself, but the funny thing is that I never learned the correct way to type. I'm basically a two-finger typist (though I seem to use a couple of other fingers here and there). For years I was a hunt-and-pecker. But now -- even though I don't do it the "correct" way -- I don't look at the keyboard. I couldn't even tell you what my hands are doing. I sort of just place them on the keys, start thinking, and my hands do their thing.

I really sped up when I started writing books (under tight deadlines). I also work as a programmer, and about 60% of my social life is online. So I'm pretty much glued to a keyboard day and night.

Funny, but my dad is the same way. He wrote about 30 books, and when I was a kid, he'd always be sitting in his home office, banging away on his typewriter. He also used two fingers, but they flew across the keys so fast they were a blur.

When I use chat, friends always complain that they can't keep up with me. Our chat logs look like this:

friend: xxxx xxxxx xxx xxx

me: xxxx xxxxx xx xxxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxx
xxxx xxxxx xx xxxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxx
xxxxxxx xxx xx xxxxxx xxx xxxx xxxxxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxx
xxxxx xxxxx xxx xxxxxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxx
xx xxxx xx xxxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxx xxxx xxx xxxxx
xxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxx xxx xxxx
xxxx xxxxx xx xxxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxx

friend: xxx xxxxxx xx

me: xxxx xxxxx xx xxxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxx
xxxx xxxxx xx xxxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxx
xxxxxxx xxx xx xxxxxx xxx xxxx xxxxxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxx
xxxxx xxxxx xxx xxxxxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxx
xx xxxx xx xxxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxx xxxx xxx xxxxx
xxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxx xxx xxxx
xxxx xxxxx xx xxxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxx

But it takes me and my friend about the same amount of time to type our responses.
posted by grumblebee at 8:06 PM on September 22, 2008


Not sure if anyone's pointed out that there's an "I" missing in the title for this post (doh!). That's more along my problem.. leaving out little words altogether. So much so that I had to post a question about it.

I've noticed that with my recent data entry job, I might change around spellings of names to include common letter combinations, eg, adding a "tr" to the beginning of "Taylor" to make it "Traylor", though I'll catch myself pretty quickly. And in years past whenever I'd write "New York" I'd often start typing "Yourk." That's the only instance where that would happen, and I can't imagine why. I never use the "ou" European variants.

And like others have pointed out, homophones get mixed in sometimes, which I suppose is a case of your brain barking out an order but your hands getting it mixed up.

Is your focus 100% on what you're typing, or do you have stuff in the background, or stray thoughts running through your head, or multiple source materials if you're transcribing something? Does it happen with some kinds of writings, and not others (like impromptu personal stuff vs more deliberate business stuff)? Does your mind wander when reading or listening to the radio? I think that's part of my problem at least.

And we're all dying to know your typing speed, so you could check out this test for starters.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 10:25 PM on September 22, 2008


Maybe it's a feedback issue? You don't know when you make the errors that you do so, so it's hard to correct in midstream. I've been experimenting with playing with typing tests such as typeracer, just because it forces me to type correctly before continuing. I figure it's like playing scrabble to keep vocab words on top of my heads, keyboard calenstetics. It seems to help reset if I'm having a horrid typo day.
posted by ejaned8 at 7:06 AM on September 23, 2008


Well, according to that test, I type 55 words a minute. But I don't generally do work that involves transcribing or dictation. I'm usually typing original stuff. So having to read someone else's writing slowed me down a bit. I'm guessing I type around 65 or so words a minute when I'm not copying something.
posted by grumblebee at 9:20 AM on September 23, 2008


I have had a problem with words for some years now. I don't get rhymes, I get stuck for a word (names, especially) and keep coming up with the wrong thing, but with the same first letter. I've no clue what's happening with that, just thought I'd toss it out.
posted by Goofyy at 11:01 AM on September 23, 2008


Just timed myself at 91 words a minute. I was on a roll. I suspect I fluctuate between 70 and 90.
posted by grumblebee at 1:28 PM on September 23, 2008


In Linguistics, we talk about something called priming. Basically, the theory is that you know a bunch of things about the words you know. You know:

- what the word means
- which other words mean approximately the same thing
- how the word is spelled
- which other words are spelled approximately the same way (same start, same end)
- how it feels to say the word
- how the word sounds
- what other words feel or sound similarly

Think of it sort of like a tag cloud. The thing(s) your mistake and your target word have common are really big in your brain's tag cloud, because they got triggered (or primed) recently.

One preview: "finders are already..." instead of "fingers are already." That's a much simpler typo than I usually make -- just a single letter substitution. But I noticed something I never noticed before: The "d" in finders is also in already. One example is too small a sample size, but I wonder if my brain is getting mixed up between the word I'm typing and a word to come.

So, maybe your [d] sound was primed. "Bird" for "word" is because [erd] is already primed. Same with barnacle for monocle (and the 'cle' spelling would also be primed already).

When you're speaking or writing with a pen, perhaps your brain has more time to find its way to the correct words. When you're typing really fast, it just grabs the biggest thing in the tag cloud. Most of the time it's right, and sometimes it grabs something that rhymes or means something similar.
posted by heatherann at 5:44 PM on September 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


Hazarding a guess, but I've had this happen when I'm in the midst of creative output. My theory is that's it's a collision of lateral thinking versus linear/critical/vertical thinking.
posted by vers at 6:04 PM on September 23, 2008


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