Righting Write

There TheirYesterday, Matt Yglesias wrote a sentence that needs to be shared, “I continue to think that conservatives are write to believe that the tax code should in fact favor the accumulation of production equipment…” I bring it up because Yglesias is a very smart man. He certainly isn’t ignorant of the difference between the words “write” and “right.” Yet there he is, writing “write” when he means to write “right.”

I do this all the time. As I do a quick read through before publishing an article, I often find these kinds of errors (and often don’t find them, even though they are there). My biggest problem is with “there,” “their,” and “they’re.” By default, I tend to type “their.” So I’m especially on the lookout for that. But not that long ago, a reader noted that I used “cite” when I meant “site.” That error is strange, because I’m not in the habit of typing that word. But she was right, even though I certainly know the difference between “cite,” “site,” and “sight.”

I think the reason we do this kind of thing is because once you type well, you don’t really type letters. I don’t so much have the keyboard memorized anymore. When I’m presented with an onscreen keyboard, I have to hunt around for the letters, even though I know that left third finger up is “w.” Now, when I think of a word, it just gets typed. I’m not conscious of it.

The problem exists because the word patterns on the keyboard seem to interact fairly directly with my homophone information rather than my meaning information. This isn’t totally the case, because under most circumstances, I do get the right homophone. But there are enough incorrectly typed words, that I’m sure that there is a very strong connection between the sound of a word and the keys that I type.

I found an interesting discussion of this over at MetaFilter. No one seems to know, but the more compelling ideas basically come down to what I proposed above. One person, however, mentioned a friend who wrote “Boston” when he meant to write “Austin.” I can’t remember any examples, but this happens to me too. It goes along with more obvious errors like typing “other” instead of “another.”

I write this as a kind of self-justification. When I see others like Matt Yglesias do it, I totally understand. I don’t think less of them. But it is hard not to feel that other people think I’m a total idiot when they read me writing “their” when I mean “there.”

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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