Even stealthier that I thought

Typing that when we mean than is a frequent typo partly because that is such a common word. And unlike teh, it’s a valid word and therefore less conspicuous. That is a background word, a bit player, typically only a part of some larger sense.

There are exceptions, times when that is brought to the foreground (“To be, or not to be, that is the question”), but it usually remains under our reading radar. So when it sneaks in where than rightfully belongs, its familiarity means it can easily go unnoticed.

Last October I wrote about this that-for-than typo, investigating among other things its typographic, mechanical, and phonetic aspects. Since then I’ve noticed it quite often, especially in informal writing but also in edited prose from reputable publishers and organisations.

Recently I was reading an article by David Crystal called “What is Standard English?” (PDF, 1.8 MB) when I came upon this passage:

The image is from the article as it appears in Concord (spelled Concorde on Mr Crystal’s website), apparently a biannual publication by the English Speaking Union. The typo does not appear in the same text in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language:

I don’t evangelise about any old typo, but I’m consistently impressed by this one’s ability to sneak past so many careful eyes. And, as I noticed when MobyLives mentioned the phenomenon, the instinct to correct it when it’s spotted is powerful too — even when the correctness is incorrect. If you’re a writer or editor, it’s one to watch out for.

Updates:

Further examples appear in the following books: Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, by George Lakoff:

Green English, by Loreto Todd:

Beethoven, by J. W. N. Sullivan:

Southern Irish English, by Séamas Moylan:

Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, by Constance Hale (review copy, so it may have been spotted later):

Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch - that than

Three times in Octavia Butler’s novel Fledgling:

Octavia Butler - Fledgling - that than

Octavia Butler - Fledgling - that than 2

Octavia Butler - Fledgling - that than 3

Erik Davis’s Nomad Codes:

erik davis - nomad codes - that than

Séamas Ó Catháin’s The Bedside Book of Irish Folklore:

Seamas O Cathain - bedside book of irish folklore - that than

For Who the Bell Tolls, by David Marsh:

for who the bell tolls - david marsh - that than typo

‘The Ballroom of Romance’, in The Distant Past by William Trevor:

William Trevor, The Ballroom of Romance - that than

When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris (Little, Brown, 2008)

david sedaris, engulfed in flames - that than typo

Herman Koch, The Dinner:

herman kock the dinner - that than typo

Chris Cleave, The Other Hand:

the other hand - that than typo

Terence McKenna, The Archaic Revival:

archaic revival than that

The Prehistory of the Mind, by Steven Mithen (p. 99, but I don’t have my copy to hand).

And on reputable websites such as BBC News:

BBC news that than typo

The New York Review of Books:

new-york-review-of-books-that-than-typo

The Irish Times:

Irish Times again:

irish times that than typo feb 2016

The Guardian:

Time Out:

timeout - best james bond movies article - typo that than

Wired:

wired - that than typo

TIME:

time - captain philips review - that than typo

RTE:

RTE that than typo

An example from a linguistics paper on contrastive reduplication:

The Economist style guide’s Twitter account:

economist style guide - than that + offence

The reverse typo than for that also occurs, as in this example from the Guardian:

And this one from Don Winslow’s novel Isle of Joy:

don-winslow-isle-of-joy-that-than

15 Responses to Even stealthier that I thought

  1. Even a small hardon collider must be agony!

  2. Stan says:

    I’d imagine so, Jams!

  3. Sean Jeating says:

    Looking at my keyboard I wonder how this typo could occur.
    More often I do find then (obviously) been [?] mistaken for than.

    What’s a typo, anyway, compared to a certain blogger’s both fundamental and glorious mistakes which are offering irrefragable evidence of that there’s a lot of English outside his head?

  4. Stan says:

    Sean: I’d consider then for than a misspelling rather than a typo (though the definitions blur). That for than isn’t a typical typo: as I wrote in October’s post, it doesn’t result from semantic confusion or from the more common mechanical misstrokes — omission, duplication, transposition, and repetition. It seems more a “capture error” or “completion error”: that is so common that when we type t, h, a…, our nervous system follows a familiar groove and automatically completes the wrong word, especially if we’re tired or distracted. I hope this adds to the sense inside your head, not outside it!

  5. Sean Jeating says:

    Ha ha, Stan. By such excellent an explanation you managed to conquer even my thick-wittedness. Thanks for both, your explanation and your patience.

  6. Yvonne says:

    Stan, are there two typos in the par from David Crystal’s article? Not just ‘that’ for ‘than’ but ‘complete’ for ‘compete’?

    Personally, I really can’t afford to be snooty about typos. I sent off a programme proposal yesterday with a great big unmissable typo in it.

  7. Stan says:

    Well spotted, Yvonne! I can’t believe I didn’t see that. I must have had eyes for only one typo.

    Being snooty about typos can get tiresome and unpleasant, but they interest me all the same.

  8. Yvonne says:

    Not suggesting you’re snooty at all! My nervousness around spellings and grammar is palpable whenever I talk or write on such topics. I need to make it clear that I’m no better than I ought…

    Just got an email confirming receipt of my big typo programme proposal. The mail says there was a “hugh” response so that makes me feel a lot better ( though not about the hugh-ness of the response obviously).

  9. Stan says:

    That’s good news, Yvonne! I’m hughly happy to hear it. I know you weren’t suggesting anything — my comment about typo-snootiness was just a throwaway remark.

  10. Yvonne says:

    Today’s typo news: I’m requested to confirm my continued interest in pitching my programme proposal “by reture”. Feeling completely blasé about my own typo sins now.

  11. Dawn in NL says:

    Stan,
    I completely agree with your point that these typos can be inconspicuous. I really had to pore over some of the examples to find the error and I consider that I have a reasonable proofreading eye (not my profession).

  12. Stan says:

    Dawn: Yes, it’s very stealthy! Unless you’re looking out for the error, it can slip right by. I added two more to the gallery this morning, which is probably why the post (presumably) showed up in your reader.

    • Dawn in NL says:

      Yes, I completely missed that it was an old post. This morning I looked to see what other comments had been added and I couldn’t find it at first. Nice of you to respond anyway.

  13. […] Update: Lots more examples of that for than in my follow-up post, ‘Even stealthier that I thought‘. […]

  14. […] that instead of …than). It’s a remarkably sneaky typo, which I’ve noticed repeatedly in edited publications. Writers, proofreaders, and style guide tweeters: beware this […]

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