Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

I’ve recently developed a minor affinity for a blog named LifeHacker, which shares little tips, tricks, and hacks that you can apply to your computer, yourself, and your life in general. It’s a decent site, and definitely worth a look if you’re bored.

However, what caught my eye today was not the content, but an interaction in a comment thread on optimizing your Mac. As such threads tend to do on any forum, it rapidly devolved into “Yay! Macs rule!” “Eww! Macs suck!”.

Applied usage of the Typo Defense

To support the “Macs suck” side, one poster by the name of “Quikboy”, posted as follows:

I’ve used a MacBook Pro for 4 years. It’s not really anything special. At first it may seem cool, but after a while, it’s just ok. It starts seeming like the same old, same old. They’re pretty expensive too. I got a Sony Vaio during Christmas, and I’ve decided to use it for my personal use…

Now, this is fascinating, because, as “Jamie Phelps” points out in the thread, MacBook Pros first came out last April. There’s no possibility, even if he had prerelease hardware, that he could have owned a MacBook Pro for more than a year or two. I assumed that he made a simple mistake and confused “Powerbook”, Apple’s previous line of High-End laptops, with “MacBook Pro”. Had he left it alone, he might’ve seemed a bit out-of-touch or unfamiliar with his hardware, but not actively decietful.

However, “Quikboy” wouldn’t go quietly. He snapped back with this post, a variation on the ages old “typo defense”:

Sorry, my ceiling light was dim. I was using the numpad, and pressed 4 instead of one. If you didn’t notice, 4 is right above one. I didn’t see that mistake and submitted the comment. Sorry. It has been out for almost a year at least as far as I remembered. I bought it somewhere in March or April of ‘06. Seems like a year to me.

Mind you, that doesn’t mean it’s well applied

To quote Abraham Lincoln, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”.If we believe his typo defense, then his intended post reads “I’ve used a MacBook Pro for 1 years.”

The problem here is that English marks plurality (the presence of more than one subject or object) in more than one place in a sentence. To change “I’ve used a MacBook Pro for 1 year”, we not only change the number, but we also add the plural morpheme (a chunk of sound that conveys a certain meaning) -s. In many cases, we’ll even mark a single object with an article rather than with a number (“had it for a year”).

So, even if he did, in fact, transpose the numbers due to a dim light on the keyboard, he also added an -s, and possibly even deleted an article. To me, it sounds like “Quikboy” got called on a lie, and didn’t have the sense to use a stronger defense (“Oh, I meant powerbook”). The Typo Defense failed him, but it doesn’t have to fail you.

Teh Pefrect Cirme

The Typo Defense is really limited in its applications. Here are some ground-rules.

  • You can only reliably argue one or two letters as a typo, not entire substitutions. You’d never get away with “You suck” “Huh?” “Oh, sorry, typo, I meant ‘You have nice hair’”.

  • Similarly, it’s more difficult to argue certain switches. “Quikboy” plays the “the keys are right next to each other” card well, but then fails because, as I pointed out, English grammar is sensitive to plural distinctions.

  • That brings us to the final rule, make sure that the sentence and sound structure doesn’t give it away. If you say “Wow, she’s quite got an ass”, you can’t go back and claim that you meant “She’s got quite a mass”. The a/an alternation will hang you.

When it works, though, the Typo Defense can be a valuable face-saving tool. Keep it in your “Oh no, what’d I just say?” toolbox right next to the Cat-on-the-keyboard Dodge and the “Oops, wrong window” absolution.

However, the best option might just be to come clean. The internet is resourceful and unforgiving, and some day, some linguist might highlight your post and dissect it, revealing the terrible truth. Wouldn’t that be creepy?

EDIT: Wow. Somebody just pointed out the Plurality error in the thread. See, there’s nowhere to hide…


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