Why do I keep accidently typing homonyms instead of the actual word I meant?
January 3, 2009 6:37 AM   Subscribe

Why do I keep accidently typing homonyms instead of the actual word I meant? e.g. Pear instead of Pair. Sometimes it gets worse and I write things which share even less in common like pardon and person.

I've done this for ages now and then and only do it when I am typing quickly and conversationally, in a direct brain to keyboard sort of way.

The second example reminds me of that little meme that went around a while go that started "Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy..."

Does it have a convenient name like typo? Does anyone else do this?
posted by public to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
This doesn't happen to me all the time, but it certainly does happen. It's one of the reasons it bugs me so much when people point out others' mistakes with there/their/they're or your/you're. I figure most of the time, the person knows the difference and just was on auto-typing (ok, there's my name for it).

My most common is probably mixing up your/you're, even though in my brain they're not mixed up at all, just in my fingertips.

For whatever reason, my favorite example of this is a friend who typed "Boston" when he meant "Austin."
posted by Airhen at 6:49 AM on January 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

This happens to me all the time. I blame it on muscle memory. The more you type a word, the stronger the connection in your head. Do you type "pear" for "pair" as you said, or is it actually vice-versa? Check it out and see if that theory works.
posted by Stewriffic at 7:16 AM on January 3, 2009

It happens to me too, usually when I'm typing fast and am tired. It makes me chuckle when it happens as I'm amazed that my touch typing must partly be based on my brain remembering which finger combination makes each sound, not just which finger hits each letter.
posted by ms.v. at 7:18 AM on January 3, 2009

I've always called that type of mistake a wordo.
posted by sexymofo at 7:21 AM on January 3, 2009

I don't know what it might be called, but I do this as well. For me it's usually specific pairs; off the top of my head, I know that I almost always type "above" for "about" (and vice versa). Don't have any idea why, but I have noticed it more over the last 5 years or so, as I've moved into my mid-forties.
posted by worldswalker at 7:36 AM on January 3, 2009

Best answer: Humans have been talking for, well, we don't really know, but call it at least 80,000 and maybe as long as two million years.

Not only do we talk, we "learn" to speak despite never receiving sufficient instruction to do so. (This is Chomsky's Poverty of Stimulus argument.) Place an infant with talking humans, and the infant will learn to speak their language -- even if the infant is adopted, and was born to culture speaking a different language. Place an infant among deaf people, and the infant will learn to sign. All this with or without explicit instruction, regardless of malnutrition, destitution, neglect, even if the child in raised in slavery, in prison, in a sweatshop.

Even more remarkably, place infants in a culture where the adults speak an ungrammatical melange made of bits and pieces of several languages -- a trade pidgin -- and the infants, growing into childhood, will invent a new language, with a consistent grammar, known as a creole.

Speech is the most dexterous physical act most of us produce, far more dexterous than anything -- like writing -- that we do with the fingers that distinguish us from animals (though deaf sign probably approaches it): speaking a sentence involves hundreds of co-ordinated movements of the lips, tongue, mouth, and throat, in order to shape a column of air to produce sounds that while unique to each person (this is how we recognize voices) also map, in our listeners' minds, to commonly shared meanings. Even more remarkable, that column of air is produced by overriding and re-patterning the automatic inhalations and exhalations of breathing required to keep ourselves alive.

Contrast all this to writing. Writing is at most 6000 years old; mastering even the rudiments requires years of explicit instruction; and even in the modern West with free public education, illiteracy is hardly unknown. And even the nominally literate are often unable to clearly express themselves in writing, as any perusal of Youtube's comments will attest.

It seems highly likely, then, that composing thoughts into words is an instinctual exercise of speech (in which separate and distinct thoughts are sometimes "jammed" into homonymic "boxes"), and that writing is a taught rather than instinctual conscious process artificially grafted to the end of this naturally evolved chain of processes.

So, it seems that you think in speech, and speech contains homonyms, the correct meanings of which are usually but not always implicit in the context of the whole thought, that is to say, when spoken (and when they're not implicitly clear, a pun, conscious or unconscious, results), and writing is a rather laborious process of General Intelligence as opposed to specialized evolved organs, which serves to transcribe "unspoken speech".

(Reading it seems, is the converse -- I'm reliably informed that less accomplished readers sub-vocalize what they read, and that one can observe their throats tremble as they unconsciously form the words they are reading into speech. Even when I, (an accomplished reader), read, I sometimes "hear" what I'm reading "in my head", as if spoken aloud -- although usually only when fatigued.)

Since applications of General Intelligence are, generally, more difficult than instinct (as brains must be explicitly re-purposed, using taught rather than an evolved algorithms), you're more likely to make mistakes due to distraction or fatigue.

Now, it's a funny sort of mistake: you don't fail to write the word, you just write the wrong homonym. It's as if you are auditing (see the root word there? auditing: hearing) yourself, and committing the wrong homonym to paper. Now, it's not that you don't have a sense of the whole phrase that serves to disambiguate the homonym; you aren't suddenly thing that your though is about a "pomaceous fruit" instead of a "two similar or grouped things".

Or maybe the part of your brain that does the transcription is temporarily "disconnected" from the part that maintains context: perhaps a subroutine has been "cut loose", and so it blindly grabs the homonym that gets the most use. We might expect "pair" to be more often used than "pear", at least for most of us who don't keep orchards, but perhaps there are other factors, even the letters making up the word, or the general words shapes most recently processed. It's unclear.

But what is clear is that writing is supernumerary, artificial, learned and conscious, tacked on to the very end of the long chain of unconscious, essential, instinctual processes involved in turning thoughts into speech sounds (or possibly just making speech sounds, on the not unlikely theory that thought itself is just a strange and baroque elaboration of the more fundamental process of making sounds).

Just as you'll keeping making mistakes in consciously doing sums, you'll make mistakes in writing, even though, absent brain damage, you'll make incredibly few in the unconscious sums you unerringly "calculate" to determine how to move your muscle to walk, or to move a piece of food to your mouth.
posted by orthogonality at 7:39 AM on January 3, 2009 [39 favorites]

Best answer: This same phenomenon was discussed in this previous question, which might be of interest to you.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 7:42 AM on January 3, 2009

I do this much more when taking Topamax for migraines.
posted by tamitang at 7:51 AM on January 3, 2009

I often do this as well- I find that it is because of how my brain is wired. My "data path" for typing is the same as for speaking, with an add-on for spelling.

So when I'm communicating, it goes like this:

- develop the concept
- put it into words
- hear the words in my head
-- speak them or
-- spell them and make fingers hit the letters I'm thinking of

If I'm in a groove or not paying attention, sometimes the "put it into words" to "spelling" connector gets flaky. Or the "speller" gets lazy and doesn't spell the words and just relies on muscle memory to type the right word.

It's fascinating- as an example, I live in Illinois. I know instinctively and rationally that it is pronounced ill-ih-NOY. But I'll be damned if I don't *think* the word as "ill-uh-NOISE". It just makes spelling easier that way.
posted by gjc at 8:28 AM on January 3, 2009

Some people's brains seem to store and retrieve words based on how they sound. When they try to think of a word's spelling, they first think of the sound, and the spelling comes from that. If there are multiple words that sound the same, they could get any of their spellings. I have no idea how many people's brains work this way, but judging by the kinds of errors people make in their writing, I would not be surprised if it was extremely common, and possibly even normal.
posted by kindall at 8:33 AM on January 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I didn't do this at all until I moved to Austria and had to speak and write German on a regular basis.
posted by dunkadunc at 8:36 AM on January 3, 2009

I do this, but very often, it's not just a homonym - it's rhyming words. "eight" and "hate" the words (not the numerals) "seven" and "eleven". Same mechanism?
posted by notsnot at 9:19 AM on January 3, 2009

Best answer: And, just as a point of interest, you are typing homophones, not homonyms. If you were typing homonyms, no one could tell the difference.
posted by timepiece at 1:00 PM on January 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's simpler than all that and has nothing to do with differences between speech and writing or the poverty of the stimulus argument, which by the way is wrong. Reading is dependent on speech; it's a code for representing spoken language. The spellings and sounds of words are tightly linked, and even skilled readers use phonological (sound-based) information when they read and spell. Roughly, you have a word in mind to spell, you access its phonological code (in your "mind's ear", not saying it out loud), you translate the phonological code to a series of letters which are its spelling. If the word is a homophone like pair-pear, there's the possibility of producing the wrong spelling (reading scientists have discussed various mechanisms that usually prevent this from happening). The errors the poster describes are normal and most people make them; incidence increases with age. People also occasionally make the complementary error when reading: misread a homophone like pair as having the other meaning (pare, pear). Such errors are less frequent in reading because you have the spelling in front of you, rather than having to generate it as in spelling. However, they can reliably elicited in experiments by presenting words briefly or with a masking pattern.
posted by cogneuro at 1:41 PM on January 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

It happens to me sometimes even when writing with paper and pencil. I remember one English Lit class where I kept on writing "Salem Witch Trails". At first I thought it was because the "i" on a keyboard is more awkward to hit while typing "trial" than the "a" key, but then I realized, "Oh, right -- pencil and paper."

But that wasn't as bad as the year before. I'd been doing my chemistry homework in history class one day. The assignment was to describe the appearance of various elements. I was writing the description for phosphorus ("a pale, yellow element"). As I was writing that phrase, my history instructor mentioned Civil War general Joseph Hooker. Some wires evidently got crossed -- when I got my paper back, I noticed that the description now read...


"Phosphorus is a pale, yellow hooker."

My guess is that our grasp on the finer points of language, like our grasp on most things, blurs a bit when we're fatigued (which I certainly was those days).
posted by Rhaomi at 5:38 PM on January 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Great question! It happens to me frequently, and happens more when I'm typing quickly or conversationally. Spellchecks clearly wouldn't highlight these areas so I find myself proofreading rather more than I'd like. I have friends who don't have this problem, but their spelling/reading technique is different to mine.

When I was taught to read I was taught to "sound out" one syllable at a time. In this way I was able to develop a skillset with which to pronounce unfamiliar words. It's also useful with foreign languages, incidentally: I can often make a better guess than most of my friends at the pronunciation of words in foreign languages which I cannot speak but with which I have some familiarity.

My friends' on the other hand see to have learnt to recognise words by their appearance. In this way, reading for them seems to be more disassociated with speech. An advantage of this is that they are less likely to substitute in a homophone, but it is not without problems. One is when they confront long, unfamiliar words, they are sometimes at a loss as to how to pronounce it. It's as if the entry is missing from their database and some run time error occurs. They look at all the letters at once, and though the first letter ends up in the right place, some of the others come out in a bit of a random order. To me its frustrating as its natural just to approach it one syllable at a time. With practice you get so quick at it no one notices that's what you're doing.

The other problem those guys face is with prolonged misconceptions about the pronunciation of words. Of course, there are some stinkers that could fox anyone, but I am fairly sure that, for the likes of you and I who use sound in their reading, we would never pronounce mischievous as if there were a rogue i after the v: mischievious.

On the whole, I'd rather have the homophone problem. Though when I'm really in full flow I've been known to replace similar sounding words rather than identical sounding words. I once substituted in "ridiculous" when I meant to type "religious", with rather offensive consequences.

I was also horrified to find a university paper I was due to hand in contained the word "fuck" every time there should have been a "the". Of course, this was due to a room mate using the "replace all" feature of Microsoft Word and not my homophone issue. Being unfamiliar with the program I wasn't immediately sure how to rectify it. For a few horrible minutes I thought I'd be forced to hand in a paper titled Darwin's Fuckory of Evolution.
posted by nthdegx at 3:32 AM on January 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

Ha! Look! An example in my first paragraph! Areas instead of errors.
posted by nthdegx at 3:36 AM on January 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

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