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June 24, 2017

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Spell checkers developing 'atomic typo' capabilities

Everyone knows what a "typo" is, I'm sure. I make them all the time when I'm typing too fast or if I am too far away from the screen. And newspapers, from Taiwan to Thailand, from Manhattan to Moscow, make them, too: small typos that somehow or other worm their way into the printed text.

Sometimes normal run-of-the-mill typos are the work of newsroom gremlins or digital ghosts; at other times, they are the handiwork of humans. And as such, they can be fixed.

But a new kind of "typo" has surfaced since newspapers went digital this century, and they are called "atomic typos." The word was coined in 2002 by C.F. Hanif, an editor at the Palm Beach Post in Florida. A good definition might go like this: An atomic typo is a typo is spelled correctly but used in the wrong way or wrong context. Some examples: nuclear instead of unclear, accept instead of except, abroad instead of aboard, Sudan instead of sedan.

Even in our high-tech digital world, most context-challenged spell-check systems are unable to detect an atomic typo because, well, it just can't. And why are they specifically called "atomic" typos? Apparently because the mistakes are so small or minute, like an atomic particle.

The term "atomic typo" is a new term and has been in use in computerized newsrooms for just over 10 years or so, although its use as a printing term in common conversation and news articles is very rare. In fact, you might be hearing it for the first time here. I just learned about the term a few months ago, too.

In plain English, an atomic typo is a very small, one-letter typographic mistake that ends up making a big difference in the meaning of a specific sentence. It could even impact an entire news article, too. Machines cannot detect the error. Only the human eye, in connection with the human brain, can do it. So much for spell check.

More examples of atomic typos that appear in English-language newspapers worldwide every day: county for country, peace for piece, game for name, sox for box, and so on. Spell check just cannot see these mistakes, and with fewer and fewer copy editors and proofreaders working in newsrooms these days, atomic typos are just par for the coarse now. Oops: I meant to type "course," of course. See?

So the next time you see news about a government-funded study titled "Unclear Physics," just remember the author probably meant to write "Nuclear Physics" — or did he?

Dan Bloom blogs about language matters at "plogspot101."

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