Reassessing reasses in our pubic schools

As a college instructor, I run into the same typos and spelling mistakes all the time.   You just have to laugh, because I don’t think I’ve ever written a typo-free paper, and most of the time they’re just honest mistakes.  I might be aggravated by writing that is vague, unclear, or awkward, but not whether you’ve spelled aggravated correctly.   So just to be clear, this is NOT a ‘kids these days’ rant.

Having disposed of that, let’s get on to the fun stuff, and talk about two of my favourite frequent errors that show up, not only student writing, but in all kinds of written English.  As you might have guessed from the title, these are reasses in place of reassess and pubic in place of public.    These snigger-worthy faux pas happen all the time; when I see them, maybe I circle them and maybe I don’t, and  I don’t take points off, but I do chuckle.  Because hey, I’m human, and so are they.  So are the numerous people who use ‘reasses’ on Twitter every day, or the authors of major educational texts (or this giant billboard) that refer to ‘pubic schools’.

But there’s a major difference between these two errors, namely that reasses is not a word, whereas pubic most certainly is.  As a result, when I type reasses in my word processor or here in my WordPress interface, it gets a little red squiggly line underneath it, whereas the only way to catch pubic is with a careful eye.   (That sounds like a double entendre, but it isn’t. Or is it?) Let’s look at some Ngram data that shows how this makes a difference.  First, the Ngram for reasses (multiplied by 200 for comparability) vs. reassess.


We see that reassess is really a product of modernity – it doesn’t start to take off until the 1950s and then steadily rises until 2000.  Reasses, its ill-begotten error-form, takes off around the same time (at about 1/200th the rate, so that there is a consistent 0.5% error rate) until the early 1980s, and then it undergoes a sharp decline until the present day.   This decline can reasonably be attributed to the rise of spellcheckers in word processors, publishing software, etc.   Human error is still human error, but the little red squiggle is immune to the vagaries of the eye and the mind.

Contrast this with the Ngram for pubic school (here multiplied by 5000) vs. public school. (I’ll use the phrase in order to avoid any intentional uses of pubic.)

pubic school

First of all, we can see that pubic school is far less frequent an error than reasses; by 2000, it’s about a 0.05% error rate, or one-tenth that of reasses, but for most of its history it was far less common.  This might be because pubic stands out more to the eye as an error.  Another possibility is that while there are probably no writers who think that public is spelled without an l (i.e., it can only occur as a typo), there certainly are writers who don’t know the spelling of reassess (and, of course, words with two sets of double letters are notoriously prone to error).

Secondly, pubic school has a long history, at least according to the Ngram; setting aside that blip in the 1830s, we still have over a century of pubic schools.  Looking through the actual sources, though, a lot of these are OCR-related errors in the Google corpus – for instance, some are actually the typo publc rather than pubic,  and others aren’t errors at all in the original text, but just Google’s OCR having an off-day.

But note that just at the point when reasses starts to go down, right around 1985, pubic school takes off quite dramatically (even as public school remains perfectly flat). I don’t think this is a coincidence.  Rather, I suspect that it’s just at this point where the little red squiggles take their revenge.  Just as the addition of spellchecking to the editor’s arsenal brought reasses under control, it brought about a new era where the role of authors, copyeditors, and publishers in controlling for typos began to be handed off to machines.   It’s not that we stopped caring, but we started to take for granted that spellcheckers would do our work for us better than we could ourselves.  And while that works well for words like reasses, not so much for pubic school, much to the amusement of all.    I do note that my current version of MS Word puts a blue usage squiggle under pubic in pubic school, but not in the general pubic, so there’s at least some awareness of this error, but without highlighting every single instance of pubic, you can’t solve the problem.

To show how this works, let’s look at some asses.  No, you filthy-minded person!   I’m talking about when you asses the impact of something:

asses the impact

We can see that assess the impact is becoming more common over time, but asses the impact, which gets a slower start, takes off more rapidly in the late 1980s – where it was once a 1/500 error in 1980, it’s 1/250 by 2000 – in other words, right about where reasses was (0.4% error rate) before spellcheckers were common.  The moral is that reasses get caught, but asses don’t.  (Insert humorous quip here.)

Of course, you can also get the opposite problem, found in phrases like public hairThe Ngram here shows a lot of noise and possibly a slight increase over time, but I don’t want to make too much of it, since there are real contexts where you can use the two words ‘public hair’ side by side innocuously.   But there certainly are several modern biomedical texts that use it in error.  Apparently the photographer Edward Weston once received a letter from a museum administrator complaining that his work could not be exhibited due to its ‘public hair’. Weston was so enamored of the phrase that he used it thereafter to refer to pubic hair.

The fine folks at Language Log have talked for several years about the Cupertino effect, a term coined by Ben Zimmer to refer to errors introduced by uncritically accepting the spellchecker’s recommendation for a word (like Cupertino for cooperatino).    The effect I’m describing here is slightly different, because it relies on the blind spots of spellchecking software – it basically subdivides typos and spelling errors into those that it catches, which decline dramatically over time, and those that, because they’re English words in other contexts, actually become more common as we rely on spellcheckers.

I’d call it typographical assesment, but I’d worry that no one would get the joke.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

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