Sigh language

April 15, 2013

From io9 last week, “Every language needs its, like, filler words”:

io9 - American Sigh Language typo

“Sigh language” is a lovely idea; as typos go it is unusually appealing. Kelly (@potterarchy) on Twitter suggested in jest that io9 may have been referring to this “sigh-off” between actors on the UK TV show Never Mind the Buzzcocks:

A sigh language isn’t even very far-fetched, given that some languages have channels of communication that use whistling and humming. Think of the subtle shades of exasperation, tedium, relief, exhaustion and wistful longing that can be conveyed with a well-shaped sigh.

It seems the sort of thing a science fiction writer might already have described – with neighbouring populations conversing through sniffs, yawns, gurgles, and what have you – but nothing springs to mind.


Subjected to unreasonable laughter

September 5, 2011

From the Sligo Times, date unknown:

In many parts of Co. Sligo hares are now practically unknown because of the unreasonable laughter to which they have been subjected in recent years.

The Sligo Times was published from 1909–1914. I haven’t seen this superb typo in its original context, but I’d like to think it’s genuine. It appears in A Steroid Hit the Earth, an amusing misprint-o-rama by Martin Toseland.

Who’d have guessed hares were so sensitive to mockery?

HSE — Who proofreads the proofreaders?

August 24, 2010

The Health Service Executive (HSE) is Ireland’s largest employer, and a few months ago it published Plain language style guide for documents, an illustrated style guide stressing the importance of plain English. What follows are some general comments and specific criticisms.

The style guide is a moderately attractive booklet, with moments of mild fun amidst the painstaking political correctness. At 34 pages with a lot of blank space, it’s a quick read, but it could have been reduced to half or two-thirds the size without cluttering its appearance. Some of its advice is arbitrary or oversimplified, but I wouldn’t expect nuanced commentary in so brief a guide. Much more unfortunate are the poor levels of grammar, punctuation, formatting, and spelling.

On page 8, “[If] you plan to use particular term” is missing the indefinite article a. So is this line on p. 21: “If you do not have copy of the first information pack”. The advice on passive vs. active voice (p. 9) is passable, if predictably crude and simplistic. The guidance on concision (p. 10) makes no allowance for context — sometimes longer phrases are better than loosely synonymous single words. Abdomen wall (p. 12) seems an unusual way to say abdominal wall, though I’ve not investigated their relative popularity in any depth.

Now, what do you think of this passage?

I’m cheered by the HSE’s sensible approval of them and their as gender-neutral singular pronouns, but imagine how much clearer the text would be if it used italics or inverted commas to refer to certain words as words. This failing occurs throughout the document and makes it much more troublesome and irritating to read than it ought to be.

Here’s a line in dire need of a comma: “end the introduction to the list with a full stop if it is also a full sentence or with no punctuation if it is a heading” (p. 16). Further down the same page there’s a typo no spell checker would catch, but which would not be missed by a competent proofreader:

We’re advised to “treat named organisations or groups as singular” (p. 19), and we’re given this example: “The HSE is divided into four areas.” Ten pages later we read: “The Health Service Executive under the National Intercultural Healthcare Strategy are developing a set of national guidelines…” This is not a significant sticking point, but if an organisation is proclaiming on style, it ought to at least be consistent in its style guide.

In the “Designers and printers” section, this phrase stood out: “make sure your final product is an easy-to-read document…” (p. 24). Maybe I’m allergic to the word product used as a catch-all term for just about anything (including people), but what’s wrong with: “make sure your final document is easy to read…”? Or change document to text if you want to allow for more possibilities.

We’re cautioned not to “underline words, write them in all capital letters or italicise them” (p. 26). I see the argument against underlining or using all capitals, but why shouldn’t we use italics? I’ve already shown where they would have been handy, and here’s another example: “The Citizens Information Board document Access to Information for All gives guidance…” (p. 29). This would read far more smoothly with appropriate italics (or inverted commas).

An aeroplane is flown in* to emphasise this strange prohibition:

I like the playful presentation, but I don’t think italicising aeroplane distorts the word’s resemblance to its referent.

Worse, the document contains elementary spelling errors — and I don’t just mean typos like the for they. Page 29 offers us compliment instead of complement:

On the next page, English is spelled with a small e. Perhaps worst of all, grammar is spelled grammer and unnecessary is spelled unnecesary:

These are shocking errors to find in a style guide. Just below them there’s a conspicuously absent apostrophe in “according to the readers needs”. Soon after that, the heading “Non Government Organisations” should be hyphenated. Non is a prefix, sometimes forming a solid compound but usually a hyphenated one. It doesn’t stand alone, like this:

I could go on, but that should suffice. In spite of these criticisms, the HSE’s Plain language style guide for documents is not all bad. It contains some sound and useful advice which, if heeded, should foster clearer communication and greater understanding of what can often be challenging material.

Sadly, the HSE style guide is also riddled with errors. I’ve been picky, but a style guide demands and deserves to be picked at. What a pity it wasn’t proofread better, not least because it urges writers to “Seek quotes for translation and two proof reads” (p. 30). Was this style guide proofread twice? More, even? Maybe I should offer them my proofreading services.


*Note non-horrific use of the passive voice.

A compromising ‘all-compromising’

August 17, 2010

I’ve been revisiting parts of Borges’ Labyrinths, a collection of short stories, essays, and parables all too easy to get happily lost in, and I noticed in James E. Irby’s introduction something that gave me pause. He’s writing about the “creative deception” Borges uses to dissolve boundaries we take for granted, such as the distinction between literature and life:

We are transported into a realm where fact and fiction, the real and the unreal, the whole and the part, the highest and the lowest, are complementary aspects of the same continuous being: a realm where ‘any man is all men’, where ‘all men who repeat a line of Shakespeare are William Shakespeare’. The world is a book and the book is a world, and both are labyrinthine and enclose enigmas designed to be understood and participated in by man. We should note that this all-compromising intellectual unity is achieved precisely by the sharpest and most scandalous confrontation of opposites.

A photograph of the same text (Penguin Modern Classics edition, 1970):

It’s a lovely passage, worth quoting at length not just for explanatory context, but shouldn’t that be all-comprising in the last sentence?

[Definitions of compromise and comprise; examples of all-comprising.]

Even stealthier that I thought

May 5, 2010

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.


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

Benedict Kiely, A Journey to the Seven Streams (title story):

Jimmy Burns, Hand of God: The Life of Diego Maradona:

Julia O’Faolain, ‘Chronic’, in Melancholy Baby:

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond:

Sara Paretsky, ‘A Taste of Life’, in Reader, I Murdered Him, edited by Jen Green:

Excerpt: 'You don't want to paint the first night your mother is in town,' Sylvia said archly, inviting Jerry to compare mother with daughter, indeed pausing for the expected remark ('You can't be her mother – if anything she looks older that [sic] you!') Jerry said nothing, but blushed more than ever.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Irish Phrase and Fable by Sean McMahon and Jo O’Donoghue:

"CAB [Criminal Assets Bureau] collected more that [sic] €23 million in tax and interest charges in 2001."

George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant:

"The aerial-delivery vehicles could not go more that [sic] a few hundred miles and could not threaten the United States."

Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind, quoting Kafka in translation:

Randy Allen Harris, The Linguistic Wars:

"... but the content was more intransigent that anything in Postal's paper ..."

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:


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 - that than typo


time - captain philips review - that than typo


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

Subtitles for Andrzej Żuławski’s 1971 film The Third Part of the Night:

Two young men in suits sit beside one another. The near man, in a dark suit, is shown in 1/4 profile. The other man, near the centre of the shot, is in a grey suit, almost faces the camera, and says: "The fate of non-existent people has never been more important that [sic] it is now."

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:


The Aspern Papers by Henry James, Penguin Popular Classics edition:

"I hurried downstairs with her, and on the way she told me than [sic] an hour after I quitted them in the afternoon Miss Bordereau had had an attack of 'oppression,' a terrible difficulty in breathing."

The privates sector of pubic service

April 20, 2010

It has been quite a week for typos. A cookbook called Pasta Bible made headlines for an error as unsavoury as its dishes are (presumably) delicious. Elsewhere, a subtler error caught my attention; or rather, it caught the attention of Amy, editor of WildBird, and was brought to mine by Mark Allen.

This pubic-for-public error, which appeared on the U.S. National Park Service’s website, has since been fixed, but a cached version preserves its ingloriousness:

Pubic for public is a common slip, but it shouldn’t appear in carefully edited text. Wondering if it was repeated on the NPS website, I ran an internal search for pubic and discovered, to my amazement, that the word registered almost 800 times. Some of these instances are legitimate anatomical references, but in the vast majority of cases the word should be public.

The pubic count is now a more merciful 574,* but even allowing for correct usages and duplicates (of which there are many), the frequency of this typo is impressive.

To give you an idea of the variety, there is a Pubic Library and a Pubic Open House, a church that is open to the pubic, and opportunities to present pubic programs. There are pubic meetings, pubic teachers, pubic lands and pubic comments; there is pubic pressure, pubic access, pubic review, pubic assembly, pubic safety, pubic benefit, pubic dissemination, and pubic information (too much, if you ask me); and there are, naturally, pubic restrooms.

These and similar examples abound, giving the impression of a schoolboy’s prank. Assuming that it’s mere carelessness, someone really ought to address it — if only for the pubic good.

* Update: A few hours later, it’s 331. They’re evidently working on it.**

** Or maybe not: the tally is now 865. I don’t think I’ll look again.

A typo more mysterious that most

October 21, 2009

I came across the following passage in a book I was reading this morning:

typo in 'Does God Play Dice - The New Mathematics of Chaos'

Did you notice the typo? (And in the title?) Typing that for than is a very common slip. It appears in all sorts of prose, edited and unedited. It appears occasionally in my own writing before I fix it. If you Google ‘bigger that’, ‘more common that’, etc., and ignore the false positives, you’ll get a hint of the extent of this mistake. Anecdotal evidence further suggests its prevalence.

For such a widespread and apparently simple typo, its cause is rather mysterious. It’s not like typing my name as Stab or Stabn, which I often do, and which is a simple misstroke resulting from the adjacency of B and N on a QWERTY keyboard and the mechanical imprecision of my typing. T and N are not adjacent, and that-for-than is not an error of omission, duplication, transposition, or repetition. Nor do that and than overlap in meaning. So whence this ubiquitous typo?

[Click for more discussion and a photo of a chimpanzee]