What would a “typo” mean in Chinese, and would a native speaker know what was meant and how the “typo” occurred?

A typo is called 错别字 (cuò bié zì) in Chinese. 错 means “incorrect; wrong” and 别 means “another”. So putting together, a typo in Chinese refers to a character that is written wrongly or a situation where another character is written instead of the one that is supposed to be used. For instances:

(This shows an example of 错字, “wrong character”. The word above, 河流, means “river”. For the character 流 on the left-hand side, though seemingly correct by a first rough glance, it is non-existent in fact, because instead of a leftfalling-cross-break stroke under the horizontal, a vertical-cross-break is applied, plus a dot is missing on the right-hand side of the said stroke. The correct character is shown in the example on the right-hand side.)

(Taking the same example, this is how a 别字, “another character”, for 河流 could be. Although the typo makes no sense, it is not technically a “wrong” character from a Chinese point of view because the character in place of 流, 浏, is a legitimate character with the same pronunciation “liú”. It just happened what actually written is not what is supposed to be.)

So in summary, there are two types of typos in Chinese: a 错字 which is a non-existent gibberish character, and a 别字 which is a legitmate character used at a wrong place.

But in the case of printing and typing, only the latter is a possible way to produce typos because under normal condition (there’re ways to type non-existent “Chinese characters” of course) all characters typed out would be structurally correct. So how would these typing errors occur?

Well, we need to get clear how the Chinese keyboard works. Obviously it’s unrealistic and idiotic to use a keyboard with each key designated with one individual character because that means a keyboard of astronomical size. In order to increase literacy rate and type in Chinese, liguists invented the Pinyin system where Latin alphabets serve as phonetic indicators. Since Chinese pronunciation consists of only consonant-vowel(-nasal) pairs, that is, every character is monosyllabic formed with one initial consonant and a final vowel, sometimes plus an additional nasal ending sound, the Pinyin system works exceptionally efficiently for Chinese. So when we type, we type out the Pinyin corresponded with the wanted characters first, after which the keyboard will provide a list of characters with that pronunciation for us to select. This seems a perfect solution for Chinese typing, but a big problem is typing with Latin alphabets is unable to have the tones typed out. Without tones, the pure Pinyin is ambiguous and the selection list can go really long, which increases the possibility of slips and careless mistakes when clicking the chosen characters. And given that there’re loads of homophones in Chinese, it again makes it more possible for people to click the wrong characters by accident. So the situation would be as shown in this series of pictures: (Ok I admit I didn’t expect it to give me 20 associated character combinations when I try to type the word for “Chinese” but I guess you get the point.)

(So the top is the Pinyin without tones, and the bottom half bar is the possible character combinations for that particular pronunciation, sorted in the order of frequency of use.)

Here I try to type the word for “Chinese”, which is 汉语 (hàn yǔ). And on the first page of the selection list, the provided words are:

1.汉语 (hàn yǔ): yeah that’s what we want.

2.韩语 (hán yǔ): well it is “the Korean language”.

3.韩愈 (hán yù): a famous politician and litterateur of ancient China.

4.韩宇 (hán yǔ): that’s a Chinese dancer.

5.韩娱 (hán yú): a general term referring to the South Korea pop culture industry.

And on the 2nd page there’re:

6.韩玉 (hán yù): a type of jade, also the name of an ancient Chinese poet.

7.瀚宇 (hàn yǔ): probably an “artificial” literary word to describe the immensity of the universe.

8.寒玉 (hán yù): also a type of jade.

9.韩雨 (hán yǔ): a Chinese billiards player.

10.寒雨 (hán yǔ): cold rain.

3rd page:

11.韩瑜 (hán yú): a Chinese Taiwanese actress.

12.涵宇 (hán yǔ): predictably a popular given name at present.

13.韩钰 (hán yù): some guy whom I don’t know.

14.汉宇 (hàn yǔ): should be a grand name for a company.

15.韩羽 (hán yǔ): most commonly used as an abbreviation for the South Korean Badminton Team.

4th page:

16.韩煜 (hán yù): again a name of someone.

17.含玉 (hán yù): “Jade-in-Mouth”, well… perhaps a popular name for girls.

18.捍御 (hàn yù): quite a literary and uncommon way to express “to defend (sth.) against the enemies”.

19.韩屿 (hán yǔ): I have no idea what this is.

20.旱榆 (hàn yú): maybe a type of tree.

It rarely happens that there’s such a long list but that is how we may make typos by clicking wrongly. Moreover, with AI, they have invented a new feature called “fuzzy sound recognition”, by which the keyboard will also include characters with similar pronunciations in the selection bar. For example, a lazy person can simply type “lin” to get “ling”, or “ni” to get “li”, depending on how the fuzzy sound settings are customised. Again this increases the chances of typos because there’re technically “more” wrong choices of characters offered.

However, Chinese native speakers are highly capable of deciphering the true meaning of typos. This is because Chinese is highly contextually sensitive. Among a cluster of homophones, usually only a couple of them can make sense in a particular sentence, among which it’s rather easy to figure out what was meant through contexts. Homophones in Chinese are rarely relevant in meanings, as you might have seen in the example above, which also makes it easy to deal with typos because the differences between possible characters are huge. Here used to be an interesting theory in which the following sentence is shown to interviewees:


And anyone you ask would definitely read the sentence as:


The sentence means “according to researches, the order of Chinese characters may not be able to affect normal reading.” Now if you examine and compare the two sentences closely, it’s evident that in the first sentence, all characters are in a disorderly arrangement, hence gibberish and meaningless in reality. In other words, the whole sentence is a cluster of typos, which, it turns out surprisingly, doesn’t obstruct the fluent reading at all. The Chinese has this ability to carry out automatic typo corrections subconsciously.

And they would know what causes a typo, too. If the typo has the same Pinyin as what was actually meant regardless of tones, it’s apparently caused by slip when clicking on the keyboard selection bar. And if a sound in the typo is different from what was meant, such as 韩语 (hán yǔ) as the typo of 含义 (hán yì), most of time people will notice quickly that the different sound in the typo is represented with a letter that is close to the original one on the computer keyboard, in this case, the key “u” is next to “i” on the keyboard. Hence this kind of typos are resulted by a careless press on the wrong key when typing. It is all very evident.

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