THE MOST MISSPELLED WORD: IS THIS OUR ANSWER?

Last month we spent some time trying to find the most misspelled word in the English language. After much effort by many contributors (to whom Dr. Boli is suitably grateful), we came to the tentative conclusion that the most misspelled word might be the contraction “you’re,” which is very often spelled “your.”

Our survey is slightly skewed, however, by the nature of the Internet itself. Though the Internet is indeed a democratic institution, where anyone can say anything, it is nevertheless true that a disproportionate amount of the writing on the Internet comes from either professional writers or amateurs who write regularly—bloggers, for instance. This is, in fact, merely a tautology: more of the writing on the Internet comes from people who write more. Such people, merely by exercising their writing ability so often, are bound to be better spellers than the general public, most of whom seldom write anything if they can help it.

Where, then, shall we find a good representation of the spelling habits of the general public?

The obvious answer is Craigslist. Here people who normally would not write if they could help it are motivated to write by greed or simple necessity. And we can take a general survey of Craigslist users’ spelling habits very easily, because the search engine is very simpleminded: it does not attempt to work around our misspellings the way Google does.

So we search for the common phrase “If you’re interested” in the Pittsburgh section of Craigslist, and here is what we find:

“if you’re interested”: 514 postings
“if your interested”: 625 postings

The misspelling is more frequent than the correct spelling in a representative sample of the general population. It should be noted, by the way, that Pittsburgh’s largest industry is higher education.

So are Pittsburghers unusually illiterate? Let us look at Mobile:

“if you’re interested”: 100 postings
“if your interested”: 185 postings

Detroit:

“if you’re interested”: 979 postings
“if your interested”: 1083 postings

Buffalo:

“if you’re interested”: 268 postings
“if your interested”: 345 postings

 Baltimore:

“if you’re interested”: 478 postings
“if your interested”: 405 postings

Tampa:

“if you’re interested”: 925 postings
“if your interested”: 868 postings

St. Louis:

“if you’re interested”: 770 postings
“if your interested”: 660 postings

It would seem, therefore, that the misspelling and the correct spelling of “you’re” are almost evenly balanced wherever we look, and that if anything the advantage goes to the misspelling.

Do we learn anything useful from this observation, other than that despair is a reasonable response to any detailed observation of human behavior?

Perhaps not. But the next time you talk to a lexicographer who insists on “description, not prescription,” and scoffs at the idea that the educated, rather than the general public, ought to set the standard for English usage, challenge him to revise his dictionary to include “your” as the correct spelling of the contraction for “you are,” with “you’re” as an obsolescent variant. See if he is true to his principles.

Comments

  1. Jason says:

    I would not consider your/you’re a “spelling” error. It is using the wrong word–a grammatical error. To me, a spelling error is intending to use the correct word, but getting the letters wrong (according to the consensus among dictionaries). I’m not going admit where my hometown is–but our Craigslist has 100 instances of “you’re” vs 255 instances of “your” in the sentence provided.

  2. Your absolvently wright, Janson. Spieling ant grandma our too berry diffident tings.

  3. Brett Bertucio says:

    First, this is phenomenal. As a high school teacher, this may not be the most common mistake, but it’s certainly one of the most annoying.

    I wanted to point out a little sample bias (or perhaps my own personal bias). As a Pacific Northwest native living in DC, I’ve become more convinced that everything gets better as you move west. The westernmost city sampled here is St. Louis (and notice, it’s on the correct side). Here are some better results: Seattle (1291 correct, 966 incorrect); Portland (849 to 613); San Francisco (1962 to 992).

  4. Sandy says:

    I agree with Jason. I was going to make the same comment. The one spelling error that makes me crazy is when people write “loose” when they mean “lose”. Have you ever been in a parkade featuring this sign: “Lock it or Loose it”?

  5. Dr. Boli says:

    Mr. Brett Bertuccio may have identified a fascinating regional difference in dialect. Or perhaps not:

    Bakersfield:
    “if you’re interested”: 172 postings
    “if your interested”: 481 postings

    Spokane:
    “if you’re interested”: 367 postings
    “if your interested”: 426 postings

    Boston:
    “if you’re interested”: 529 postings
    “if your interested”: 299 postings

    And, of course, Washington:
    “if you’re interested”: 751 postings
    “if your interested”: 240 postings

    Dr. Boli hopes there are some graduate students paying attention here. There is material for any number of theses in these raw data. Once we attempt to take into account demographics, differences in regional dialect, and the local competition to Craigslist, we could easily spend two or three years studying the implications of the regional variations in this one simple phrase.

  6. Christian F. says:

    I think I see the problem here. I respectfully suggest we not take grammatical cues from Craigslist. It’s as interesting a study as drunk driving deaths, perhaps even in same vein, but I’d hope such study does not lead to legally mandating drunk driving.

  7. Peter says:

    I agree that this is a case of writing the wrong word. It seems that the users intended to use the correct word but their misspelling resulted in a different word. Some examples I have seen are the use of ‘then’ for ‘than’ (e.g. Joe is bigger then Jeffrey). Again, this seems to arise from a slurred or incorrect pronunciation of the correct word.

  8. George Geisler says:

    As a teacher and professional person, I’ve found one of the most common errors of pure spelling is to spell separate as “seperate”. That’s a spelling error and extremely common.

  9. William Congdon says:

    As a longtime and reflexive copyeditor, I think your right.

  10. CKG says:

    I’d guess that you’d find a similar phenomenon for “their/there/they’re”, which might, because of its three-fold opportunity for confusion, be even more interesting, even if not quite as prevalent. . .

    To be fair, I suppose one should allow for the possibility of simple typographical errors, as well. It is not at all uncommon to encounter “to” when “too” is clearly the required word (“to much”). That could be either a “wrong word” or a simple typo. . .

  11. jpoling3 says:

    I think we do observe that Baltimore’s superiority to Pittsburgh is not confined to the gridiron.

  12. LK says:

    As a speech pathologist, a don’t qualify homonym misuse as spelling, but rather language. I would call it a grammatical error. In my area of th country (the northeast), I would nominate “alot.”

  13. Fr. Dan Goulet says:

    I am not surprised. My generation (known as Generation X) learned grammar and spelling through episodes of “School House Rock” as most school systems followed the California method of teaching popular in the late 70’s and 80’s: No grammar and eubonics. Thank goodness for “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, get your adverbs here” and “Conjunction Junction, what’s your function?” Go ahead and sing them aloud now that they are in your head!

  14. Paul Waters says:

    The problem isn’t spelling, or even grammar. It’s that pesky apostrophe. People just don’t know how to use it. I bet that using “it’s” as the possessive form of “it” is a far more frequent error than mixing up “you’re” and “your”. And all those dinky little signs you see outside cottages that say things like “The Smith’s”. What does that mean? That the cottage belongs to a single person named The Smith? It doesn’t help that Americans and the rest of the English speaking world have some different rules. For example, in Canada, we would write (and say) “Pope Francis’s election”, whereas Americans would write “Pope Francis’ election” (but they’d pronounce it “Francis’s”).

  15. My pet peeve is the random use of the apostrophe in forming plurals, e.g. “Jane has three dog’s and four cats.” And the correctly formed possessive plural is becoming an endangered species.

  16. Carl Monson says:

    Many email services auto-correct the spelling and if you type “your” they will automatically put “you’re” there for you. It requires one to go back and correct the correct spelling they had to start with. Some just give up.
    This may be the reason this is the most misspelled word. “Mother” computer.

  17. Clara Schoppe says:

    I am wondering if using your in place of you’re might not be less a spelling error than a result of using on-line communications rather than print. People get so used to texting and abbreviating, that it’s possible that those who know the abbreviation for you are is you’re are simply deleting the apostrophe and the letter e believing that the reader understands what the writer means from the context.
    Do we see the opposite? Are there an equal number of writers using you’re where your belongs? I think that would show spelling confusion more than the former.

    • R O says:

      From what I have seen, the online convention for either is “ur”, although some who understand the distinction will use “u r” in an oddly correct reversion for the un-contracted abbreviated form.

      [As an aside, thumb typing the above on a smallish touch screen, with automatic word-completion suggestions was quite tedious, as opposed to touch typing on a physical keyboard. Many of the less common words were proffered in a list after the first few letters, except when my thumbs went astray, which was quite often. No wonder the mobile environment exhibits so much sloppiness with words!]

  18. mojoron says:

    You’re is not as wrong as the use of Democratic Party instead of the correct term Democrat Party. Even news readers on TV will make the same mistake. The Democrat Party is far from being democratic.

  19. Jere Joiner says:

    OK, if we’re into pet peeves, I’d guess the biggest grammatical mistake is made by newspaper reporters and TV personalities too is “There’s.” I constantly read things like “Everyone knows there’s (sic) 11 people on a football. Yeah? Well, suppose there’s (sic) only 10, is it still a football team?” C’mon, folks, it’s “there ARE 11 people and if there ARE only 10, is it …” You get the point.

  20. Fr. James Gibson says:

    In a similar, perhaps parallel vein, I am amazed at the average Catholics, priests and bishops included, who endlessly add an “i” to the word “grievous” when they pray the Confiteor (I confess) at the Eucharist. I’m referring, of course, to pronunciation rather than spelling. I have yet to see the word “grievious” in reference to a fault of any sinner. But that’s how they all say it!

  21. Normand Duern says:

    Hmm, Brett Bartuccio:

    “As a high school teacher, this may not be the most common mistake, but it’s certainly one of the most annoying . . . ”

    Is “this” is the high school teacher, in this sentence? Or did you mean “As a high school teacher, I find this one of the most annoying . . .”

    Spelling, grammar, yes, yes . . . anyone remember syntax?

    Just twitting you, Brett. I find dangling modifiers among the most common, and annoying, errors to be found anywhere these days.

    Even high school teachers are occasionally guilty of it, it seems, gadzooks! Also pshaw, tut, tut, and sundry other ejaculations of disapproval. I would almost go so far as to say: Harumph! in fact, but I am trying to restrain my indignation.

  22. Delores says:

    I would think the very close second would be
    they’re, there and their…. I see these misspelled over and again.
    Delores

  23. smb says:

    “Affect” and “Effect”…many confuse the proper application.

  24. Roan says:

    Homonymns are only partially differentiated by spelling: A man shall cleave unto his wife and not cleave her in twain. Etymological considerations aside, one could merge the spellings of there and their. The former has greater frequency, so even writers who know better may unconsciously resort to it when typing quickly. Any English speaker knows that they are different words. By way of contrast, how many know that in tap, as in table-tapping and tree-tapping, we find two etymologically distinct words? If someone writes (as someone once did to me), “your lecture really peaked my interest,” it is clear that the person doesn’t have a clear idea of what the metaphor literally means. There are words whose spelling everyone supposedly learns in school but which are nonetheless frequently misspelled, receive being a famous example. When I see such mistakes, I am dismayed less by the ignorance than by the indifference—the failure to pay attention. Here in Japan, the development of word processing has meant that there are many more mistakes in the use of Chinese characters. One types in the phonetic rendition of the word and then pushes a button. One may intend to say “sailboat” but instead write “anti-war”…If one sees such a mistake, one assumes that the writer knew better but was a careless proofreader.

  25. Dick says:

    It’s a little off-topic because it’s not a spelling error, but I have to say that the phrase “could care less” when the speaker clearly intends to say “couldn’t care less” drives me nuts.

  1. […] ears and go on pretending to describe the language impartially. But how impartial are they? We have already seen that the average American is probably more likely to write “your” than […]

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