Mighty Red Pen

January 29, 2008

Ceci n’est pas un typo

Thanks to Laura, who wrote in a comment the other day, “So, what is the difference between a typo and a grammar goof?”

It’s an interesting question. Strictly speaking, a typographical error is a very specific kind of error. It is, by definition, “a mistake in printing, typesetting, or typing, especially one caused by striking an incorrect key on a keyboard.”

I’m going to take “grammar goof” to mean an innocent mistake by your average writer (not a word nerd, although we make them, too). To me, the difference between this and a typo is somewhat subjective and sort of depends on how rigidly you apply rules of language to all or some parts of your life. To a prescriptivist, a rule is a rule is a rule. To MRP, there’s room for forgiveness.

For example, the same spelling mistake came across my computer screen twice in two days. One was in an e-mail from a friend. The other was on boston.com:


Okay, here’s the deal: He spells it Scorsese. In referring to my friend’s e-mail, I called it a misspelling (I’m thinking akin to what Laura calls a grammar goof). When I saw it on boston.com, I called it a typographical error.

Why? Because in one case, knowing my friend, I was pretty certain she just didn’t know how to spell Scorsese. To my editorial mind, however, boston.com printing Scorcese without fact-checking the spelling is a typo.

I think this is a good chance to share a little tidbit I found on Blue Pencil Editing.

Ode to the Typographical Error

                                            Paris in the Spring
The typographical error is a slippery thing and sly;
You can hunt till you are dizzy, but it somehow will get by.
Till the forms are on the press, it is strange how still it keeps.
It shrinks down in a corner, and it never stirs or peeps –
That typographical error, too small for human eyes –
Till the ink is on the paper, when it grows to mountain size.
The boss, he stares with horror, then he grabs his hair and groans;
The copyreader drops his head upon his hands and moans.
The remainder of the issue may be clean as clean can be,
But the typographical error is the only thing you see.


Now the question of how to deal with grammar goofs versus typos is also somewhat subjective. This blog addresses many different kinds of grammar errors, all of which can be interesting, instructive, and entertaining.

Other editor types: please chime in.



  1. i can’t believe you neglected to mention that the reason i mentioned SCORSESE in my email was because his editor gave my film tons of awards and wrote me a glowing letter. and how you, too, once starred in a Tapioca Production.

    Comment by aud — January 30, 2008 @ 3:04 pm | Reply

  2. In neither case would I call that a typo.

    In both cases, I would call it a misspelling.

    A typographical error is when someone KNOWS what the rules are, or what the proper spelling is (I accidentally typed “selling,” bcs I didn’t hit the “p” key hard enough), but their fingers make a mistake somehow.

    A grammar goof is when someone does not know the rules or usage standards.

    Of course, it’s hard to tell what’s in someone’s head.

    I’m a very fast touch typist, w/ lots and lots and lots of little “letter groups” saved in my head (hence 125 wpm at peak). I have found that the neurons in my brain (or whatever) will slip into the “rut” of those little word groups, and I will type “their” even as my brain is saying “they’re.”

    It’s a new form of typo for me–one I didn’t make when I was younger (can i blame DD’s pre-teen years?). In my case, it *is* a typo, but if I didn’t catch it, anyone else would think it was a grammar goof.

    (and I’m lumping usage in w/ grammar; some folks might argue they’re not the same)

    Comment by TootsNYC — January 30, 2008 @ 7:00 pm | Reply

  3. >>In my case, it *is* a typo, but if I didn’t catch it, anyone else would think it was a grammar goof.

    Thanks for mentioning that. I was thinking that but not exactly able to articulate my sense that part of the difference is related to the issue of intent, and for an editor, you can’t always know. As I was composing the post, I thought someone else might have thought Aud’s (I was trying to protect your identity, you know!) misspelling was a typo — I didn’t it call it that because I knew the intent — she didn’t mistakenly type it, she misspelled it.

    But why wouldn’t boston.com’s spelling mistake be a typo — wouldn’t you be able to assume that such a website would know the correct spelling of Scorsese?

    BTW: Holy fast typing, Batman!

    Comment by mightyredpen — February 1, 2008 @ 6:18 pm | Reply

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