Spelling Usage

It’s definitely not “definately”

Q: A recent comment on the Web said journalists should “definately” be more careful about their English. This misspelling is ubiquitous, yet every time I see it I am thrown into mental gymnastics to assure myself it is not supposed to be “defiantly.”

A: Yes, “definately” is a very common error. Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed.), lists 104 of what he sees as the most commonly misspelled words in English, and “definitely” is one of them.

You’re not alone in puzzling over whether “definately” may sometimes be a misspelling of “defiantly,” rather than “definitely.”

It seems that some older spell-checkers have suggested “defiantly” as the proper spelling of “definately.” As a result, you can find many inappropriate appearances of “defiantly” in writing.

In fact, there’s even a term, the Cupertino effect, for this penchant of spell-checkers to recommend inappropriate words to replace those that are misspelled or unrecognized.

The term refers to the inclination of some ancient spell-checkers to change “cooperation” (which used to be hyphenated) to “Cupertino” (the home of Apple).

As for “definately,” lots of people have noticed this error. Here’s a passage from a recent article by Lori Fradkin, a former copy editor at New York magazine, in which she describes her inability to stop spotting errors.

“I know it’s all a little once-a-copy-editor-always-a-copy-editor, but I can’t help it if I think unnecessary quotes are funny, as if signs are trying to be ironic. Or if I’m turned off by guys who spell it ‘definately.’ I don’t sit around and diagram sentences for fun or keep a dog-eared copy of Strunk & White on my nightstand. But I continue to empathize with other copy editors when I spot typos in their publications because I’ve definitely been there.”

So have we! (We were once copy editors.)

PS: The article that we cited is on the AWL, a New York-based website whose motto (“intended with some humor”) is “Be Less Stupid.” (The website is named after that little thingy one uses to punch holes.)

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