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We've done it again. We misspelled Annapolis — as Annpolis — in a headline. In the BIG TYPE.

That headline, written by a copy editor, was checked by a slot editor (the editor who oversees the work of a particular gaggle of copy editors), was overlooked by another copy editor who read the page proof, and was set in type by a page designer. Four people saw the error in front of their noses, and no one caught it.

You may wonder how this could happen. The managing editor wondered, too.

The problem is not that those four editors were ignorant. Quite the contrary: All four are experienced readers, and that is the problem. Unless you are a beginning reader sounding out words letter by letter, or someone afflicted with a cognitive disorder, you do not read letter by letter, word by word. Your eyes scan clusters of letters and even phrases at a time, which your brain sorts into patterns and interprets as intelligible meanings. Annapolis is a familiar pattern of letters.

The reader's eye can register that particular cluster with one letter missing, and the brain, recognizing the pattern, supplies the missing letter and moves on.

That the mind operates this way, by the recognition of patterns of letters and phrases, can be illustrated by a text widely circulated on the Internet. (Look up typoglycemia on a search engine.) The faster you move your eyes over this passage without pausing, the more meaning you are likely to take in.

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer inwaht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? yaeh and I awlyas thought slpeling was ipmorantt.

Still and all, however, we make an effort to spell all the words correctly.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:25 AM | | Comments (1)


I am sure I could whomp up a Word macro to rearrange the letters of all the words in a story in a couple of hours; you could then turn a handful of stories into semigibberish and place them on a page -- and then ask the savants at Cambridge whether they would actually want to read such a page.

I wonder what would happen if you asked a native speaker of, say, French to read the same stuff -- would their hapless brains try to assemble French words and recoil at finding nonsense? What if it made just as much sense in French as it does in scrambled English?

And I wonder why everyone can't immediately solve scrambled-word puzzles at a glance?

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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