Typos and Errors

Published 4:30 pm Friday, June 3, 2022

Today’s column presents the latest batch of typos and errors. Typos are often due to our typing quickly or to technology’s interference with our word choices. A student who needed some help with an administrative matter wrote an e-mail to me a few weeks ago that started, “Hi Professor. Just chucking in about next steps I should take.” I can have quite a few typos (and sometimes errors as well) if I am trying to write something quickly. I had written to a colleague thanking her for her help with a committee assignment that involved reading student essays. I meant to write “We’re fortunate to have someone with your strong background in English and writing on our committee.” But I started spot editing different parts of the e-mail, removing small words and phrases by highlighting them and hitting delete, and ended up sending an e-mail with the following sentence, “We are fortunate to have you with your strong back in English.” Yikes, imagine sending that to a Rhetoric professor, who as it turns out, graciously ignored the typo.

Errors represent a different issue altogether. The explanation of the errors presented below, many of which are increasingly more common, is that the author has misunderstood something about the way standard English works. Many of the errors come from a partial memory of or confusion concerning a correct form or phrase.

A student essay describing the importance of academic honesty wrote that “It’s wrong to plagiarize on a written assignment.” His understanding of academic integrity is right on. Yes! However, he’s modified the standard language. “Plagiarize” is a transitive verb. A correct use would be “He recklessly plagiarized the exam of the student sitting next to him” or “This work plagiarizes a commonly referenced website.” Note that the standard use of “plagiarize” is that of a transitive verb, meaning that it takes a direct object and is not modified by a particle. A person plagiarizes something. The student error described above modifies this to produce “plagiarizes on”, most likely formed on the pattern “cheated on” as in “Student X cheated on the exam by copying the work of the student next to him.” “Plagiarize” has an interesting etymology. It’s from Latin plagiārius and means “person who abducts the child or slave of another, kidnapper, seducer” and could also be used in Latin to mean “a literary thief”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was first appeared in English as “plagiary”, an adjective that is now obsolete. Its first recorded use as a verb in English was in 1660.

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Another error that is growing more common is the use of “upmost” for “utmost”. It’s similar to the increasingly popular phrasing “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes” in that it represents a partial and incorrect recall of the correct word or phrase. Students regularly write “This is of the upmost importance”. From their perspective, and being completely unaware of the word “utmost”, “up” is a logical prefix to “most” in order to convey the superlative sense. It’s also an indicator of the rapidly vanishing skill of deep reading. Research indicates that fewer people are reading deeply and thoughtfully. Without a strong reading base, it’s difficult to be proficient in all of the complexities and nuances of standard, written English.

Another common error is “use” instead of “used. An example I saw recently was “It use to be called that” instead of “It used to be called that.” This is part of a larger change, largely occurring in spoken English but now also showing up more frequently in written English. Past participles ending in “-ed” are disappearing in favor of an abbreviated form. It is now common to see phrases such as “bottle water”, “can goods”, and “unsweeten tea.”

I’ll close with a sample of written English that is also common. It can occur when there is a need for formal language that communicates an important or serious message. In the attempt to use formal language correctly, there is an overreach, and the resulting phrasing fails to communicate the intended message and can often cause more confusion. An example of this kind of message, provoked in this case by the need for safety precautions due to COVID, showed up this way “If health conditions change, this event is subject to change in mitigation of even cancellation.” Can you see the intended message? And can you re-write this so that it communicates the intended message?

JULIA PALMER is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is jpalmer@hsc.edu.