Last week’s column focused on the havoc that automated spellcheckers can wreak when a suggested “correction” turns out to be utterly wrong. More often, though, people who over-rely on spellcheckers can run into trouble when a misspelling is actually a legitimate word and therefore isn’t flagged as an error. There’s a well-circulated bit of verse (with variations going back to 1992) poking fun at people’s tendency to ignore mistakes that spellcheckers miss:
Eye halve a spelling chequer,
It came with my Pea Sea.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks I can knot sea.
Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your shore real glad two no.
Its vary polished in it’s weigh.
My chequer tolled me sew.
This variety of overlooked error may largely become a thing of the past with the advent of “contextual” spellcheckers, such as the one that comes with Microsoft Office 2007 — which puts blue squiggles under words that exist in its dictionary but appear to be used in the wrong context. But contextual spellchecking is still in its infancy, and these “miss steaks” will surely continue to flourish in the foreseeable future.
English usage guides are full of admonitions about commonly confused words, like loose/lose, its/it’s, there/their/they’re, your/you’re, affect/effect, and than/then. One extremely common example is the word of appearing in place of have in could of, should of, or would of, an error that creeps into writing because of the similarity of have and of in spoken usage (particularly when have is contracted, as in could’ve, should’ve, would’ve). Careful writers learn to avoid these common pitfalls, or if they’re incorrigibly bad spellers they learn to run their work past a good (human) proofreader.
At Oxford University Press we’re always on the lookout for misspellings of this sort so that our dictionaries of current English can include usage notes warning against the most frequently occurring missteps. One of our lexicographers recently spotted a common spelling error that had previously eluded the usage guides: the single word along used when a long is intended, as in “along time” or “along way.” This one shows up surprisingly often, even in edited prose. In recent weeks a Sports Illustrated columnist wrote of a struggling NASCAR driver, “Those heady days seem along time ago now,” while a CNN article led off with the sentence, “Virtual reality (VR) has come along way since its conception during the 1950’s.” The goof has even found its way into a USA Today headline: “‘Go for it’ can go along way.”
As usual, we turned to the Oxford English Corpus to test how frequently this error occurs. The two-billion-word database of texts contains 328 examples of “along time” and 228 examples of “along way,” appearing in a wide variety of different texts, from edited news articles to informal blog posts. Granted, these are relatively small numbers compared to the occurrence of the correct versions in the Corpus: the “along time” error occurs about one percent of the time overall, with “along way” occurring about a half a percent of the time. But these are still significant rates for this type of spelling error, enough for us to sit up and take notice.
What’s remarkable to me is that none of the prominent usage gurus, from Fowler to Garner, have thus far complained about the along/a long confusion, even though it’s possible to dig up examples in print as early as the 17th century. I think the error has flown under most people’s radar not simply because it’s spellcheck-proof. It is one of several spelling confusions involving the indefinite article a, such as apart vs. a part, away vs. a way, and awhile vs. a while. (The common error alot for a lot shares a family resemblance, since alot could be influenced by the preexisting word allot.) But with a long vs. along, the letter a is glomming onto an adjective (long) rather than a noun (part, way, while). That means the misspelling has to sneak into longer phrases, like “for along time,” “come along way,” or “it’s along story.” There’s no single, predictable context in which the error appears, which perhaps makes it less detectable by the pattern recognition mechanisms in our brains.
Finally, a quick note for anyone who might still be concerned (based on the recent ABC News piece on National Dictionary Day) that OUP is blithely adding new spellings of words to its dictionaries simply because they show up frequently in contemporary usage. When a spelling is clearly recognized as an error, we’ll say so, appending a usage note to the relevant entry if necessary. So do any of the above examples have a chance of being deemed acceptable variants instead of plain old mistakes? Not by along shot!
Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here.