Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Standard by Mistake

What happens when a misspelling gets enshrined in official documentation? Mike Pope, a technical writer and editor at Microsoft, looks at some embarrassing typographical errors that continue to linger in the world of computer programming.

Sometimes accidents become standards. My favorite such story concerns the typewriter technician Martin Tytell. During World War II, Tytell worked for the U.S. Army creating typewriters for many languages that didn't already have them. On the typewriter for Burmese, however, he installed one letter upside down. By the time he learned about the error, the upside-down letter had become institutionalized for typewritten Burmese documents.

In my work editing computer documentation, I've seen several similar situations, where a slip-up early in a development process is not caught. By the time someone notices the erroneous term, it has become a de facto standard.  

In my world, probably the best-known example is the Web programming term referrer. In a browser, a referrer is, loosely speaking, the page you were just on. For example, your browser tracks the referrer in case you click the Back button.

When specifications were written for the Web, someone misspelled referrer as referer. (Check out section 10.13 of the HTTP specification here.) The specification became the standard, programmers created browsers according to the specification, and ever since, we've worked with the HTTP_REFERER object. Programmers who try to use the correct term eventually discover that it only works when they intentionally misspell it. (On the other hand, many programmers don't even realize that referer is a misspelling, which is how we ended up in this situation in the first place.)

Another example. For the word mnemonic, you'll often find the variation mneumonic (reasonable, considering how the word is often pronounced). Long ago, a Windows programmer at Microsoft created a function named SHStripMneumonic. This function kicked around in Windows for a long time as what's termed an internal function — something that other Microsoft programmers might use, but not outside programmers. So no one worried about how it was spelled. At some point, however, Microsoft was obliged to publicly document every function, and by then the use of SHStripMneumonic was widespread enough inside Windows that it was no longer practical to try to pretty up the name for public consumption.

More recently, another Microsoft programmer wanted to create a function that involved checking indexes, or as the dressed-up plural has it, indices. But that's another word that people often get not quite right, and the function snuck by all of us and was sprung onto the world by the name HasBaseIndicies. We feel particularly bad about that one, because this happened more-or-less on our watch.

In each case, the error was noted only after the name had gotten out into the wild, so it couldn't be fixed. It's a little like putting a phone number on a business card — you might want to change the number, but by the time you've distributed boxes of cards, lots of people have the old one and you're stuck with it.

A kind of inversion of the standards-by-mistake story occurred when competing browsers were being developed for the Web. Web-page designers can designate colors by using codes (for example, #00FFFF is cyan). But for convenience, you can also just use names for the most common colors. When one of the first browsers was being created, the creators borrowed an existing color-naming scheme in which the color name gray was spelled grey. This isn't a misspelling, of course; it's just that Americans prefer the spelling with -a-. Most browsers were configured to accept either grey or gray.  Except one — for many versions, Internet Explorer stubbornly refused to recognize the term grey, recognizing only gray. When it was fed the -e- variation, Internet Explorer either ignored it or rendered the wrong color. This caused endless confusion among Web designers, who had to learn the hard way about Internet Explorer's fussy spelling preferences. (This was finally fixed in recent releases of Internet Explorer.)

It's interesting to contemplate whether these spelling mishaps will contribute toward legitimizing the alternative spellings. As I noted, many programmers are surprised that referer is a misspelling at all. In the future, maybe a programmer who is unsure about the spelling will search the Web and turn up as many instances of referer as referrer. At that point, can we really say which one is right?

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Mike Pope has been a technical writer and editor for nearly 30 years. He has worked at Microsoft and Amazon, and currently works at Tableau Software. You can read more at Mike's Web Log and Evolving English II. Click here to read more articles by Mike Pope.

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Comments from our users:

Friday September 11th 2009, 10:21 AM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
I always thought that DIALOG BOX was a (perhaps intentional) misspelling of DIALOGUE BOX. I wonder what the actual truth is. Maybe I was wrong; DIALOG has been with us so long that it now looks right. Perhaps it was always an alternative spelling — but it certainly looked wrong three decades ago when I first saw it.
Friday September 11th 2009, 11:50 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Don: Dialog has been accepted variant of dialogue in American English for quite some time now. The -og version was originally popularized in the late 19th century along with other spelling reforms suggested by the American Philological Association and the American Spelling Reform Association. A handful of newspaper publishers began enforcing these changes, notably Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune, a longtime proponent of simplified spelling. When his grandson, Col. Robert R. McCormick, became publisher of the Tribune, he took up the mantle with great vigor. Most of the proposed spelling reforms never found acceptance, but changing -ogue words to -og was one area of success, with analog, catalog, and dialog all catching on. ( Epilog and synagog not so much.)
Friday September 11th 2009, 4:16 PM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for the clarification!
Saturday September 12th 2009, 6:07 AM
Comment by: Bruce (Florence, SC)
Off the subject but! I must tell you that yesterday the NASA narrator referred to the second to last orbit of Discovery as the "penultimate" orbit. I was so pleased that I learned this word from VT about three weeks ago. I wonder how many other people understood this other than my VT comrades.
Saturday September 12th 2009, 3:30 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
There is no consensus in the legal community on the spelling of the "green leafy substance", commonly hand rolled into "joints" or smoked from pipes, known as marijuana/marihuana. For instance, if you practice law in Michigan, you will likely spell it "marihuana", in Oklahoma "marijuana". Other jurisdictions local, state, and federal, similarly differ between the two spellings.

However, I don't know if one or the other is considered an accidentally standardized misspelling.
Sunday September 13th 2009, 3:12 AM
Comment by: Clementina (Albuquerque, NM)
La Clementina, though interested, has no comment.
Sunday September 13th 2009, 3:35 AM
Comment by: Peter B. (Berkeley, CA)
often irritating; using "criteria" instead of "criterion" for a single item
Sunday September 13th 2009, 5:56 PM
Comment by: Mark A. L.
You did not mention my favorite such mistake!

Adobe Systems mistakenly used the word "guillemots" to specify angle-bracket quotes such as <> or «this.»

The correct term is "guillemets," not "guillemots."

The popularity of Adobe software has resulted in a truly giggle-worthy situation: it is now a standard typographic practice that quotations should be enclosed between two little black-and-white northern seabirds.

Monday September 14th 2009, 1:08 AM
Comment by: Ann L.
It is not a misspelling, but bad optics (or physics?) when programmers and database analysts talk about a "mirror image" of the database. They really mean "a copy". It's entertaining to suggest to them that a mirror image would have all the data reversed. (Okay, "reversed" might not quite right, but it gets the point across.) Sometimes they even drop the bs term and use plain old "copy".
Tuesday September 15th 2009, 10:31 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
@Mark A.L., that's a new one to me! I'll add it to the collection.

Speaking of typography, I occasionally read exasperated explanations by professionals that try to clarify the distinction between typeface and font. There's no typo there, of course, but a general misunderstanding of a technical distinction, which has led to the term "font" becoming generalized.

And speaking of punctuation, there also seems to be a relatively common substitution of a backslash for a slash (virgule) -- I frequently see "either\or" and the like. This is a mistake that could not have been made before computers, of course. (Specifically, before 1961.)
Sunday September 27th 2009, 1:46 PM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
@Mike P.: I always thought it was proper to use a solidus in that situation rather than a slash.

Of course I'm constantly annoyed that I have to type Alt+0150* (or Alt+0151) in order to get a dash instead of a hyphen. Except that won't work in Word; you have to type two dashes, then a space then start another word – which is just as annoying if your inserting the dash into a passage you've already written, rather than typing it in mid-flow.

*We'll see how well it works on this forum. Equal chance it comes out looking like a hyphen anyway.
Sunday September 27th 2009, 1:48 PM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
No, it worked. That makes me feel better.
Sunday September 27th 2009, 6:37 PM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
You can create em dashes in almost any application on the Mac with SHIFT ALT HYPHEN. (Leave the ALT off for an en dash.)

It is a constant annoyance that this combination doesn't work on anything but a Mac. (I use a lot of em dashes in my writing.)

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