thethesisis full of errors!

greetings, gentle readers! i apologize, once again, for the long hiatus. this post will give a brief preview of the fruits of the labor that has kept me from blogging ere these long weeks. my thesis about typos is nearing completion, and, believe it or not, i actually have some interesting conclusions to show for it! what follows is a synopsis of what my thesis will become over the next couple of weeks... *knocks on wood*.

many of the studies of typos i read are inadequate to describe naturalistic typing (that is, speech over IM, for instance), because they test people doing transcription typing, or they gather their corpora (sets of linguistic material--in this case, errors) from published works. neither of these data sets is appropriate for comparing the errors made in typing to the errors made in speaking; published typos are very selective because they are only those that escaped the notice of several proof-readers and editors. transcription studies don't work because they involve a perceptual element, reading, that a) doesn't occur in speech and b) might change the types of errors made in ways that are, as yet, unpredictable.

so i brought 20 undergrads into the lab and made them (paid them to) have IM conversations. they used software that recorded each of their keystrokes including the backspace key. These 10 conversations generated almost 350 typos, including things that were clearly 'edits' (planned utterances that were deleted before being sent). My spreadsheet called 'Typos that Matter' contains 192 rows. These are typos that involve individual letters or sounds. They will be the focus of my study!

one of the main observations made about speech errors is their striking regularity. for example, in speech, consonants only slip with other consonants and vowels only slip with other vowels. Gary Dell, one of the big speech error guys, uses a set of four rules, including this consonant-vowel category effect, to identify 'human-like' speech errors. Other rules include the phonotactic regularity effect--speech errors do not cause combinations of letters that are illegal in the language being spoken. For example, in English, you can't begin a word with 'tk,' so that combination never occurs at the beginning of a word as a result of an error.

it's immediately apparent that typos do not obey these same regularities. adjacent letters often slip, regardless of whether they are consonants or vowels, and illegal combinations occur fairly frequently.

another important difference concerns the volume of errors in speech versus typing. I brought half as many participants into the lab to have conversations over the phone. they produced only 5 Errors that Matter. the ratio of speech to typing errors in this setting is something on the order of 1 to 20.

both of the above facts are evidence that typos occur because of very different processes than speech errors do. however, the fact that made me want to study this in the first place is the similarity of some typos to speech errors. there is a set of typos that behave almost the same way as speech errors--these errors are of a specific type known as 'non-contextual substitutions.' in these cases, a letter is removed completely and replaced with another letter that does not exist in the surrounding utterance. "fright" typed for "bright" is a good example of this, whereas "rbight" for "bright" is a contextual exchange.

when i examined only single letter non-contextual substitution errors, a striking pattern emerged: they follow Dell's rules very very closely, almost entirely, as speech errors do. except one rule to which i'll return later.

since one class of errors follows cognitive constraints while others seem to ignore them completely, i plan to propose that there are two separate mechanisms responsible for typos. non-contextual substitutions (and perhaps other types of errors) are caused by errors in planning and internal speech--the same things that cause spoken errors. exchanges and other types of errors occur after planning at a lower level of processing and aren't susceptible to the filters or structures that make phonotactic and consonant-vowel category violations impossible. that's pretty neat!

the Dell rule that non-contextual substitutions do violate with abandon is known as the initialness effect. in speech errors involving consonants, the first consonant in a word is much more likely to be involved in an error than consonants at the end or middle of words are. the same is not true for typing errors! in fact, of the 22 non-contextual substitutions involving consonants that i've checked for consistency with Dell's rules, 16 violate the initialness effect. this is a striking effect that might point to a major difference in processing and planning across the two media.

so, not only are there different articulatory problems with typing than there are with speech, but perhaps the medium in which we do our articulation actually effects the way we plan and retrieve speech. i would try to claim this as empirical evidence that contemporary media theorists are correct--that communication technologies effect our cognition in a profound way--but that's a lot to say in 20 pages, and linguists don't take kindly to much of my favorite media theory...

look for a future post on plans for further research!

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