Smart mistakes

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Students of speech errors have long observed that they provide insight into the way language is organized mentally; the inadvertent slips that people make show that they know (tacitly) enormous amounts of stuff about their language. So do mistakes of another sort, in which people produce what they intend to, but this diverges in some way from what they are expected to produce in some community or context: persistent misspellings (not typos) like loose for lose, for example (discussed here). Many of these mistakes are "smart mistakes", which show that those who produce them know a lot about the standard system; at the same time, they are "mistakes of ignorance", meaning ignorance of the complete standard system — but actually ignorance of just one or two relevant details.

A case in point: my granddaughter Opal's recent writing of the word Embarcadero (the name of a street near where we were having breakfast at the time). She wanted to practice writing things, and she herself chose the word, for reasons I do not know. Her mother spoke the names of the letters one by one, and Opal wrote them down. As it happens, her pen was at the right edge of the page when she started writing, so she just went on from there, writing the letters in order from right to left, and writing each letter in reverse. Perfectly. We cheered this performance, but did tell her that it was backwards, and that other people might have trouble reading it unless they put it up to a mirror. She was somewhat offended by this. She almost always writes left to right, rarely reversing letters, but she seemed to be treating the direction of writing as a matter of stylistic choice.

If you're a fault-finder, you'll look at what she wrote and say that this performance was almost entirely wrong. But in fact it was almost entirely right. The only mistake was in the direction of writing. It's a lot like loose for lose, in fact.


  1. Alexis said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 11:14 pm

    Is Opal perchance left-handed?

    I've always found writing "mirror-writing" to be particularly easy — the only difference is that I'm a bit slower writing that way and my handwriting looks slightly different. I've wondered if it has something to do with handedness or is a completely arbitrary talent.

  2. Doc Rock said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 7:15 am

    Fifty years ago when I was in college, there was a rather strange, but interesting kid in my dorm. He was totally ambidextrous and could write mirror words with both hands simultaneously–such that what his left wrote was the exact mirror image of what the right did. He was a superb artist and also could draw like that. He also could draw/write different things simultaneously.

  3. Arnold Zwicky said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 9:47 am

    Alexis asks if Opal is left-handed. Handedness is rather fluid in many small children — Opal is 4 — and Opal shifts back and forth between her hands for some tasks, but now she reliably uses her right hand for writing (as she did on this occasion).

    Mirror writing with the left hand is, I think, fairly easy to learn to do. And there are other cases of people who can write with both hands at the same time, normally with the right and mirrored with the left. A childhood friend of mine was able to do that some fifty years ago, and it turns out that she still can, not having attempted it or even thought about it for decades.

  4. oxlahun said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 9:58 am

    When I was a kid, probably early teens, one of the things that fascinated me about some ancient writing (Egyptian and pre-Hellenic Greek come to mind) was that the direction actually was a stylistic choice. I saw small children making reversal "mistakes" and deduced that most folks' brains were capable of working that way, but that somewhere along the line, we had imposed a cultural constraint, and couldn't see a better reason than right-handed people not smudging their ink.

    I know it's not that simple, but on some level, really, it is.

  5. linda seebach said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

    Greek was sometimes written left-to-right and right-to-left on alternating lines, a style called boustrophedon (following the ox furrow). The Chronicle had a crossword puzzle based on it not too long ago.

    But either direction, it has nothing to do with whether right- or left-handed people smudge their ink. That depends on how you orient your writing paper so the hand you write with is below the line you are writing. Sadly, elementary teachers sometimes do not know this (one of mine did not, and furthermore she argued with me about it), which is why you see left-handed children struggling to twist their hands and arms out of the way when they write.

  6. Sniffnoy said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 3:24 pm

    Hm, I'm right-handed, but I'm told I "write like a lefty". I don't think I knew what that meant until now.

  7. rejiquar said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 8:51 am

    Heh. In high school, I read or heard somewhere that da Vinci wrote backwards because he was left-handed. True or false, I was intrigued, and decided if he could, I could. It took me about 2 weeks to learn how to write (cursive) right to left—but six months to learn how to read it!

    I had to hold my own writing up to a mirror, sometimes, before I mastered this latter skill. My right-to-left handwriting is different, and even when I practiced it regularly, slower to do and much slower to read, mostly, I presume, for lack of practice. In time, I learned how to write with my right(1) hand, both forwards and backwards, but more slowly yet. Having grown out of the twin high-school-aged desires to conceal the content of my writings and have some way, any way, to look cool, I seldom practice this skill any more.

    I've always thought it would be cool to reverse my monitor, though.

    (1)speaking of eggcorns, smart errors, &c, I originally wrote `write' for right. Ack.

  8. David Marjanović said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 4:44 pm

    Heh. In high school, I read or heard somewhere that da Vinci wrote backwards because he was left-handed.

    …because he was left-handed, but educated to write with his right hand because the very existence of lefthandedness was generally denied till the third quarter of the 20th century. So, the idea goes, he discovered that he could write with the left hand at least as easily, even though the writing came out in the other direction.

    Moving both hands in parallel generally seems to be a lot more difficult than moving them in opposite directions.

  9. Aaron Davies said,

    April 28, 2008 @ 11:40 pm

    I've read that Jefferson could write Greek with one hand and Latin with the other, simultaneously.

  10. Maureen said,

    May 3, 2008 @ 8:49 pm

    No. That was Garfield. Lawyer, politician, and briefly, a teacher of classical languages.

    He was, alas, assassinated by a fellow Ohioan, Charles Guiteau — a lawyer, plagiarist, and disgruntled ex-Oneida Community member.

    Not every smart president was named Jefferson.

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