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Casting a spell on English

© Pat Lalli / Fotolia.comOne of the leading UK newspapers is always referred to in the satirical magazine Private Eye as the Grauniad. This is a humorous reference to the supposedly high number of typographical errors that used to be found in the Guardian.

Typographical errors have more than one category. There are miskeyings, such as form instead of from, or hte instead of the. And there are genuine spelling errors such as seperate for separate, which are the result of people actually believing that seperate is correct. Some proprietary word processing software comes with built-in detectors for spotting and correcting items such as abscence and talkign. (I once prepared a talk, using PowerPoint, and had included a slide showing some common misspellings such as medecine. “What’s wrong with this one?”, I had asked the audience, pointing to the now impeccably spelled medicine, which PowerPoint had corrected behind my back without so much as a by your leave. “Nothing”, they muttered, clearly unimpressed.)

But there’s one category that fascinates me, and that’s when people apply the spelling of a word that they are familiar with when trying to write a word that they are less familiar with. You could say they were orthographic mondegreens, I suppose. Like mondegreens, there seems to be some logic in the alternative spelling, though sometimes the logic seems somewhat tortuous.

A simple case is the word consensus, which many people spell as concensus presumably by analogy with the word census. All quite understandable. Also understandable is expatriots for expatriates (presumably not just living abroad but turning their back on their home country). And (thanks to Wendalyn Nichols’ blog for alerting me to this one): in this age of everyone for him- or herself, it’s a doggie-dog world out there!

I came across a more bizarre one many years ago, when looking through a wordlist derived from BBC World Service broadcasts. It appeared that the word quadrapartheid occurred no fewer than four times in the corpus we were using. What sort of regime, I wondered, would discriminate differently against four sectors of its society? When I looked at the occurrences in context, I discovered, happily, that this was a rather novel spelling of the word quadripartite, so we were dealing with four-sided agreements, not with a peculiarly perverse government.

A Google search on quadrapartheid reveals that the Bureau of Public Affairs in the US believes that President Cardoso of Brazil referred to the Quadrapartheid Nuclear Safeguards Agreement in the course of a speech he delivered at the White House in 1995. And a similar misspelling occurs in the journal TechTrends, volume 47 No 6 November 2003, where Michael K Thomas has a paper entitled Designers’ Dilemmas: The Tripartheid Responsibility of the Instructional Designer.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be analysing the list of words that people have looked up in the Macmillan Online Dictionary, and I’ll report back on my findings and on the wealth (or dearth) of misspellings that are revealed.

Read Casting a Spell on English (part 2).

Read more about common errors in English.

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Stephen Bullon


  • The name of the President of Brazil was misspelled — it should be Cardoso, rather than Caldoso. What an interesting article! My favorite spelling error by far is ‘doggie-dog’!

  • Eduardo

    My apologies. It’s very embarrassing to have made such a mistake in a post about spelling! I went back to the site in the hope that I had simply copied over an existing typo, but no such luck. The fault is entirely mine. It just goes to show that people who write about spelling should make doubly sure that they get everything right. The typo has now been corrected. Thanks for pointing it out.

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