Why We Make and Miss Typos

One of the great joys of subediting Reader’s Digest is spotting typographical error. There have been some gems over the years. A favourite was in a 2013 story about RAF Bomber Command: “They had severely underestimated the deadlines of the German night fighters” – one missing S turned the Luftwaffe from lethal force to having to be home by 9pm.

Happily, we spot almost all of them before pages go to print. The few that creep through happen because I sometimes break the cardinal rule: if you’re making changes to stories at the last moment, someone should read over your shoulder to spot your errors. Like the vast majority of people, I am rubbish at spotting my own mistakes.

So why is it so hard to see our own typos? And what can we do about it?

But It Looked Fine!

Dr Tom Stafford, lecturer in psychology and cognitive science at the UK’s University of Sheffield, has made a study of error. He says that there are solid reasons why we find it so hard to see our own mistakes: apparently we view everything as “a mix of sensory data and our expectations about the world”.

To explain what this means, he says we should think of ambiguous images like the vase/two faces illustration on the previous pages. “Your interpretation,” says Stafford, “the ‘what you expect’ – switches between two valid readings. But the sensory data [what’s actually there] stays the same.”

The trick, says Stafford, is that the phenomenon isn’t restricted to ambiguous images. “It’s happening all the time, with every single act of perception. Our own typos are hard to spot because we know what we meant to write, and so this gets in the way of seeing what we actually did write.”

And we’re not alone in being able to miss our own mistakes – Stafford says that other people often make the same “filling in” errors when reading because they have shared expectations about what will come next. “The more the reader knows what you are likely to say the more they are likely to focus on this level and ignore the details, like typos.”

What’s Going On?

To investigate what happens when we make mistakes, Stafford and his colleague Cigir Kalfaoglu asked touch typists to type 100 sentences without being able to see what they were typing. The researchers timed their keystrokes and compared the speeds when typists made a mistake to the normal “correct” typing speeds.

They found the participants slowed down while making the mistake and immediately afterwards. Most of us have had that feeling of uncertainty when a part of our brain is shouting “Hang on a minute, you’ve bungled something!” The only difference was that the participants couldn’t read back over their work, unlike the rest of us who are likely to miss the mistake even when we can see it.

Typing was an ideal study, because letter transposition is so easy. As Stafford says, “All you have to do to type ‘teh’ instead of ‘the’ is to press the right keys in the wrong order.

“In handwriting that’s much harder, because the ‘order’ is encoded in the motor skill in a deeper way: as you write ‘t’ you change it to begin writing the ‘h’ next, so it is much less likely that you’ll deploy the ‘e’ before the ‘h’ even though your brain prepares for both writing and typing in the same way.”

The physical breakdown of typing into individual letters makes it easier to get the order wrong or even leave some out. In fact, we can get so involved with writing that we can leave out whole words or sentences, particularly when working on a complicated piece of writing.

But the same level of difficulty can make it easier to spot the mistakes: “Complex material makes you slow down, which makes you more likely to spot errors,” says Stafford. Alas, it’s a two-way street. If you’re writing or reading something with which you are familiar, “you’re more likely to have expectations, which will cause you to miss errors.”

So How To Fix It?

Sadly, most of us don’t have an editing team to spot the mistakes we miss. But there are tried and tested techniques that will help you DIY typo-spot.

The best option is to take time away from the work before giving it a final read. Finish your report early and then look at it with fresh eyes in the morning, or, even better, after the weekend.

Time away lets you see the place where you wrote blind instead of blink, or the section where you introduced an argument, then gave the conclusion, but forgot to write in the supporting facts. Even if it’s as little a gap as your lunch break, you’ll still be fresher and more capable.

Reading out loud also works for some people – you can hear the wrong words as you speak them. Or download free text-to-speech software and let the computer speak instead.

In the RD office, we still work a lot on paper, because typos show up more on the page than on the screen. Some people take it a step further and swear by using an odd font like Comic Sans, which makes it harder to read ahead and forces you to focus on each word.

One thing that Stafford and Kalfaoglu spotted in their study was that while typing speeds didn’t slow in the lead-up to a mistake, they were more likely to be erratic. Stafford has suggested that this could be the typist slipping out of the “zone”. But when it comes to tips for staying in the zone he says, “I wish I knew. Perhaps it should be a topic for follow-up research?”

In the meantime, we’re left to rely on the traditional tools for keeping focus: a quick walk and a cuppa. And as to how many typos made in writing this article? I lost count at 26.

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