“Our Fingers Will Betray Us”

We MUST proofread.

And the older we are, the MORE we MUST proofread.

I took typing back in my senior year of high school, when personal computers had not been invented. I learned to touch type on an IBM Selectric typewriter. I’m also a competent speller, and had an excellent grammar teacher who hammered punctuation, sentence structure, and some vocabulary into our protesting heads. Yes, he made us diagram those damn sentences until we got it right.

So I surely know how to put a cohesive sentence together, correctly spelled, punctuated and with proper word usage. I know the difference between they’re, their, and there, and it’s and its, and you’re and your. I could teach a class in all the above. I also know how to type!

So why do I find sentences like, “I went over to then and took there money” when I know darn well I meant to type “them” and “their”?

Why? Because I have trained my fingers to auto-complete my words. Yes, just like your smart phone will – and often with just as bizarre of results.

Forty-plus years of typing (I spent many years writing business letters for a living, so that was a lot of typing) have taught my fingers what words start with “t-h-e” and my fingers will randomly complete the endings without conscious input from my brain. It’s a very frustrating situation, especially in casual typing such as online groups like the Forum, where my intention is just to make a quick response and go on about my business. Instead, as soon as I hit “post” and the text is disappearing from view, my eye sees what my fingers have done and I have to go back into the post, proofread the whole thing (usually there is more than one error), and correct the typos.

When we learned to type, we were copying examples. We would look at the paper, and see the words, “It was a dark and stormy night,” but we weren’t typing the words; we were typing the letters: Shift i- t-space-w-a-s-space-a-space-d-a-r-k-space-a-n-d-space-s-t-o-r-m-y-space-n-i-g-h-t-space-space. Our eye would see the letters and, after a lot of practice, eventually our fingers would automatically type it without us having to think about where the letter was on the keyboard and which finger to push it with. But we typed letter by letter, not word by word. If we were typing someone else’s words, we might not even know what the document said until we proofread it. It was just one letter after another while we typed.

When we are typing our own words from our brains, not from something we wrote on paper, such as when writing a narrative after a restaurant shop, it’s a different process. Over time we teach our fingers to type the word we are thinking in our heads: It-was-a-dark-and-stormy-night. Our fingers hit the space bar at the end of each word without us even being aware they have done so. (And if you learned to type when I did, it will hit that space bar TWICE after each sentence and colon.)

But our fingers eventually learn the patterns, and then the fun begins, when they put the wrong “sound alike” word – “bare” instead of “bear,” “there” instead of “their,” but never “ewe” instead of “you;” those words don’t start with the same letter so are less likely to trick your fingers.

The other thing we might do is substitute letters due to variations in the size of the keys, retaining water which might make our fingers a little fatter on some days, arthritis making some fingers stiffer and not as precise as they used to be, or the use of touchpads instead of keyboards. Hit “n” instead of the adjacent“m” and you get the then/them mixup from my example above. Hit “i” instead of the adjacent “o” and “I love you” becomes “I live you.”

Back when I took that typing class my senior year of high school, I had pretty good accuracy at the end of the semester and typed 40 words per minute (I type about 60 or more now). My freshman year of college, I took a Business Machines class and became “fluent” in the 10-key adding machine.

When I typed my first term paper after taking that 10-key class and became very fast on that machine, I discovered to my dismay that my left hand now typed faster than my right. My right hand was now trained to two sets of signals – the right half of the typewriter keyboard and the 10-key pad. My right-hand response was just a millisecond slower, but that was enough to create transpositions between letters on the right and left side of the keyboard. “Weird” works out okay because the “e” needs to be typed before the “i” but “piece” might come out “peice.” Most spell checkers will fix that, but if I’m trying to type “diary” and it comes out “dairy” it’s not going to catch that at all. Nor when I type “field” when I mean “filed.”

It doesn’t happen all the time, but seems to happen with words I type frequently, and therefore my hands are flying to complete them for me. And it happens more if I have just been reconciling my checkbook than it does later in the month when I haven’t needed to type numbers recently.

So when we see a post in the forum with a few misused words, transposed letters, and amusing typos of the “love/live” sort – let’s not assume the writer doesn’t know better and jump all over them. They could just have a few million more words under their belt than you do and their flying fingers are betraying them.

And you just might be looking at your own future. 🙂

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