Excepted for publication

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I wrote to a colleague who helped me edit a paper that it had been accepted for publication.  She wrote back, "I’m glad it is excepted".

Some may look upon such a typo as "garden variety", but I believe that it tells us something profoundly significant about the primacy of sound over shape, an issue that we have often debated on Language Log, including how to regard typographical errors in general, but also how to read old Chinese texts (e.g., copyists' mistakes, deterioration of texts over centuries of editorial transmission, etc.).

Often, when you read a Chinese text and parts of it just don't make any sense, if you ignore the superficial semantic signification of the characters with which it is written, but focus more on the sound, suddenly the meaning of the text will become crystal clear.  In point of fact, much of the commentarial tradition throughout Chinese history consists of this kind of detective work — sorting out which morphemes were really intended by a given string of characters.

The best commentators, readers, and translators of Chinese texts — individuals such as Arthur Waley (1889-1966) — possess an uncanny instinct for plumbing beneath the surface of a text to get at the heart of the language it expresses.  Of course, men like Waley are not infallible (given the vast complexities and historical vagaries of Chinese texts, that would be utterly impossible), yet their brilliant philological / phonological insights enable them time and again to make stunningly illuminating explications and felicitous renderings.  (Incidentally, of all the great modern Sinologists, Waley was the least academic, but most literary.)  This is especially important for those who work on vernacular writings, where there are frequently no standard orthographical conventions for recording common expressions in the spoken language, such as happens with medieval Dunhuang popular literature at every turn.  Indeed, this is why Dunhuang vernacular texts are centrally situated at the birth of Sinitic vernacular writing.

Consequently, I keep a close eye open, not only for typing mistakes committed by others, but also my own, which I often find to be amusing, but telling.


Selected readings




  1. Ed Shaughnessy said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 8:00 am


    Have you considered the possibility that it was not at all a typo, whether “garden variety” or not, but rather an editor’s joke, the understanding of which depends on seeing the spelling of the word. Understood in this way, it might be even more amusing—and even more telling. Sure, there are plenty of phonetic loans or phonetic misspellings, if you will, on view throughout Chinese literature, but there are also plenty of cases in which characters are miswritten because of visual similarity with another character. There’s no one size fits all method to the reading of Chinese texts.


  2. Shimon Edelman said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 8:35 am

    In the process of teaching cognitive science to a group of Chinese students, I recently had to explain the concept of efference copy, which involved drawing a distinction between efferent and afferent connections in the nervous system. As a native Russian speaker, I am always uneasy about my English vowels; in this case, I had to use my entire face to try and make the point.

  3. Michael Carasik said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 8:39 am

    The complication is that it works the other way as well. I can tell someone my name out loud but if they think about how it is (or might be) spelled they sometimes ignore what they've heard and pronounce it the way they would pronounce the written form.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 8:45 am


    Certainly there are plenty of graphic errors in the writing and reading of Chinese texts. It takes meticulousness to catch the graphic errors; it requires genius to grasp the phonological errors.

    As for "excepted" instead of "accepted", the editor was surprised when I pointed that typo out to her, so it was not an intentional joke.


  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 9:15 am

    "genius to grasp the phonological errors"

    Honed by the sharp, critical, analytical, insightful reading of thousands upon thousands of texts.

  6. Neil Kubler said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 9:21 am

    Quite agree this is a good example of primacy of sound over writing. The confusion of "excepted" with "accepted" is directly related to the fact that in spoken English there is a phonemic contrast between [ɛ] as in "met" and [æ] as in "mat," while Spoken Standard Mandarin lacks these two vowels and a similar kind of contrast. Thus, native Chinese speakers whose English proficiency is not strong typically confuse those two vowels with a third vowel that Mandarin does have, namely [e] as in "mate." I remember once a local Chinese tour guide invited a group of English-speaking tourists whom I was accompanying on a tour of China to "try some delicious Chinese snakes," which caused no small amount of anxiety on their part. Of course, he meant "delicious Chinese snacks."

  7. Rodger C said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 9:44 am

    The confusion of "excepted" with "accepted" is directly related to the fact that in spoken English there is a phonemic contrast between [ɛ] as in "met" and [æ] as in "mat,"

    I'd think it's more likely related to the fact that in spoken English these two vowels are normally merged in unstressed environments.

  8. Chau said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 9:49 am

    Another common typo resulting from primacy of sound over writing is "side 'affect' of a drug".

  9. Terry K. said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 10:06 am

    Replying to Neil Kubler's comment.

    I think the kind of confusion that causes an accidental misspelling like the one mentioned (excepted for accepted) can easily happen to monolingual English speakers. Yes, English contrasts [ɛ] as in "met" and [æ] as in "mat". But we don't normally contrast them in unstressed syllables. So "accepted" and "excepted" can easily sound alike. And while I know I would tend to hear "accepted" in my head with [æ] when writing, I don't think everyone does that (hear it in their head different than they'd say it), and I can't even claim I always would. And then there's text to speech, where hearing it in our head isn't part of the process.

    I do, though, find the comments on Mandarin interesting.

  10. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 10:14 am

    Though clearly distinct in meaning, in fast speech accept is often /ɪkˈsɛpt/.
    D. Crystal reported in Who Cares About English Usage? ( 1984) that a number of English undergraduates presented with the pair of sentences "Shall we accept/except his invitation to dinner? " chose except. But the confusion is ancient: Queen Elizabeth I is known to have done the same in a letter.

    Longman Pronunciation Dictionary : accept /ək ˈsept ; æk-; ɪk- /

  11. 번하드 said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 10:50 am

    @Neil Kubler:

    Now this is a funny coincidence.
    Hangul has 에 and 애, which would be quite close to the vowels in "met" and "mat".
    Books will tell you that for younger Koreans this distinction has disappeared and they won't even hear the difference, and reality will confirm this.
    But I as a foreigner try to learn and pronounce vocabulary with the vowels as written,
    which doesn't hurt communication in any case but helps me remember spelling!

  12. Jerry Packard said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 12:58 pm

    And let's not overlook the natural feel of the resumptive pronoun in the relative clause in the first line "…a paper that it had been accepted for publication. …"

  13. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 1:06 pm

    @Jerry Packard

    Sir, how do you feel about a possessve such as in "a man that his kids want to call 'Daddy.'"

  14. wanda said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 1:21 pm

    Are you sure the colleague wasn't just doing speech-to-text on her phone? People do that when they're sending emails while driving or otherwise not on a computer. That would be my go-to explanation for mistakes like this.

  15. Chris Button said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 1:26 pm

    @ Antonio Banderas

    I'd say Brits are more likely to distinguish the two via ɪk- and ək- than Americans.

  16. Jerry Packard said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 1:32 pm

    @Antonio L. Banderas

    "a man that his kids want to call [gap] 'Daddy.'"

    Seems fine to me.

    I personally might have said:

    "a man whose kids want to call [gap] 'Daddy.'"

  17. Chas Belov said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 2:31 pm

    I regularly, although not consistently, typo and writo, in English, trailing unvoiced consonant stops for their corresponding voiced consonant stops at the ends of words, e.g., "t" for "d". Inexplicably, I also typo and writo "r" for "s" or perhaps it's the other way round (I don't remember at the moment, but I'm pretty sure it's always in one direction and not the other).

    @Neil Kubler: I have actually had both delicious Chinese snacks (quite available here in San Francisco) and delicious Chinese snakes, the latter at Snake King Restaurant in Hong Kong in 1989.

  18. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 2:33 pm

    @Jerry Packard
    What did you mean by "natural feel " in your previous post?

    Earlier I was referring to the "whose" vs "of whom" vs "who/that + possessive" alternatives.

    WHOSE: I. Interrogative uses (direct and dependent). 1. belonging to whom; what person's. https://www.oed.com/oed2/00285120

  19. David Hill said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 4:19 pm

    Way back when, when I was a student at the University of Colorado, I walked past a sign nearly every day. It was a "Do Not Enter" sign, but buses were allowed to enter. So it said, "BUSES ACCEPTED". That sign drove me nuts.

  20. Oatrick said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 7:18 pm

    If less than half of all submitted papers are published, then the published ones are the exceptions, & are therefor excepted as well as accepted. … https://youtu.be/3WLwroOYFg0

  21. John Swindle said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 7:41 pm

    In Americanese, the inscrutable Britishism "except for access" would be pronounced the same as "accept for access." "Except for excess" and "accept for excess," while both pronounced alike, would be pronounced differently from the first two. (I say "would be" because none of these are things that are actually said.) As Rodger C and Terry K pointed out, the trick is that the vowels differ from one another when stressed.

  22. Michael Watts said,

    July 31, 2021 @ 4:46 am

    And let's not overlook the natural feel of the resumptive pronoun in the relative clause in the first line "…a paper that it had been accepted for publication. …"

    You're confused. The sentence you're excerpting goes

    I wrote to a colleague who helped me edit a paper that it had been accepted for publication.

    There is a relative clause in this sentence, and it is who helped me edit a paper. That it had been accepted for publication is not a relative clause; it is a complement of the verb wrote. There is no resumptive pronoun involved, for the obvious reason that this isn't a relative clause.

  23. Michael Watts said,

    July 31, 2021 @ 4:51 am

    As Rodger C and Terry K pointed out, the trick is that the vowels differ from one another when stressed.

    Well, not really. I agree that "excess" and "access" are distinguished in American English, but that's not because the DRESS and TRAP vowels are distinguished in stressed syllables. It's because "access" is stressed on the first syllable (and uses the TRAP vowel there), and "excess" is stressed on the second syllable (and therefore uses a reduced vowel, not DRESS, in the first syllable).

  24. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    July 31, 2021 @ 5:17 am

    @Michael Watts

    LPD: ˈæk.sɛs —as a verb, occasionally also •ˈ•

  25. Phil H said,

    July 31, 2021 @ 5:31 am

    I'm quite often surprised by how phonetic my typing errors are. I think it's just that I've become a better and more automatic typist over the years. About 5 years ago I started noticing myself quite frequently making typos like "shun" for "tion" and "won" for "one." This seems to me to back up the primacy of sound theory.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    July 31, 2021 @ 5:39 am

    @Phil H


  27. John Swindle said,

    July 31, 2021 @ 7:26 am

    @Michael Watts: I think Merriam-Webster online is right to give two pronunciations for "excess."

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2021 @ 7:39 am

    The google n-gram viewer indicates that (in the corpus it uses) "accepted" is around two orders of magnitude more common in English prose than "excepted," with a parallel divergence of frequency of the strings "is accepted" versus "is excepted." So you'd think that even fairly "dumb" speech-to-text software, if well-designed, would by default disambiguate homophones by choosing the more likely one rather than the less likely one. (That's without even asking the software to evaluate discourse context factors, such as the better-than-random-chance likelihood that the editor's reply would duplicate/echo a verb used in vhm's email being replied to rather than a different verb that's homophonous with the one vhm used).

    But I don't know if that undermines the "automated speech-to-text" hypothesis here, because I am certainly open to the possibility that current speech-to-text software is not, in fact, well-designed (and/or that there are considerable technical obstacles in implementing what strikes non-technical me as straightforward at the conceptual level).

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2021 @ 7:50 am

    FWIW, I generally pronounce "excess" with first-syllable stress (and the DRESS vowel) and I'm not self-conscious about that being an outlier from my mostly standard/prestige AmEng pronunciation,* although maybe I should be. Although FWIW I think I do go with second-syllable stress in the fixed phrase "to [do something] in/to excess."

    *By comparison, I often say "acrosst" for "across" but am perfectly aware that that's non-standard and prescriptively deprecated.

  30. Jerry Packard said,

    July 31, 2021 @ 11:13 am

    @Michael Watts

    I see. I must admit that I did not see that parse. The parse I saw (with the resumptive pronoun) was not the parse intended by Victor. Thanks for the clarification.

  31. Batchman said,

    July 31, 2021 @ 11:32 am

    @번하드: The distinction between the "met" and "mat" vowels has been nearly obliterated in some American English speech for the past couple of decades, mostly by collegiate American females, who pronounce the short "e" in "met" almost identically to the short "a" in "mat". I am not sure why this is, but I find it very uncomfortable to listen to. I wonder if the closeness of the 에 and 애 Korean vowels is related to this, as 애 (generally transcribed as "ae") is closest to the English "mat" sound but actually lies between the "mat" and "met" vowels.

  32. KevinM said,

    August 1, 2021 @ 11:33 am

    Readers of a certain age (i.e., "certainly aged," says Lord Byron) who watched American TV in the '60s will recall the "steady drip, drip, drip of EXcess stomach acid." I (NYC area) tend to stress the first syllable for the adjectival sense of "surplus." But for the noun (as in Wilde's "nothing succeeds like excess") I stress the second.

  33. Johanna Bishop said,

    August 6, 2021 @ 6:06 am

    @Phil H: I'm a translator, and when I do first drafts at top speed they're riddled with phonetic spellings – like terrible transcription from some voice in my head. And they sometimes look so much like eye dialect that I burst out laughing.

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