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):
Three times in Octavia Butler’s novel Fledgling:
Erik Davis’s Nomad Codes:
Séamas Ó Catháin’s The Bedside Book of Irish Folklore:
For Who the Bell Tolls, by David Marsh:
‘The Ballroom of Romance’, in The Distant Past by William Trevor:
When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris (Little, Brown, 2008)
Herman Koch, The Dinner:
Chris Cleave, The Other Hand:
Terence McKenna, The Archaic Revival:
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:
Brewer’s Dictionary of Irish Phrase and Fable by Sean McMahon and Jo O’Donoghue:
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:
The New York Review of Books:
The Irish Times:
Irish Times again:
An example from a linguistics paper on contrastive reduplication:
The Economist style guide’s Twitter account:
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: