slip of the pen

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

slip of the pen
"Many a slip of the pen . . . [the writer] sees and would recall as he looks over his volume" (William Makepeace Thackeray, Preface to Pendennis, 1850). (nicolas/Getty Images)


Slip of the pen is an informal term for an inadvertent mistake made while writing, usually the substitution of one letter, word, or phrase for the correct one. Also called a verbal slip or lapsus calami.

A slip of the pen is regarded as a type of heterophemy, the unintentional use of an incorrect or inappropriate word or phrase in speech or writing.

The expression slip of the pen dates from the mid-17th century.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • "Once in a while [Martha Ballard] refers to a presentation as preternatural as a physician might, but her designation of one woman's labor as supernatural was surely a slip of the pen."
    (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. Alfred A. Knopf, 1990)
  • "By a slip of the pen when I was writing out the heading for the first group of poems, I put Raymond Lully's name in the room of the later Alchemist, Nicolas Flamel."
    (W.B. Yeats, quoted by Timothy Webb in Selected Poems. Penguin Modern Classics, 2000)
  • "[T]he patent declared the two parcels of land as 'being adjacent,' ignoring the fact that they were actually separated by more than a hundred thousand acres. The governor's slip of the pen—which Livingston neglected to correct—increased the size of Livingston Manor from 2,600 acres to 160,000 acres, stretching from the east bank of the Hudson to the Massachusetts and Connecticut lines."
    (Tom Lewis, The Hudson: A History. Yale University Press, 2005)
  • Hawthorne Interprets a Slip of the Pen
    "What a vile slip of the pen was that! How absurd in me to talk about burying the bones of Byron, whom I have just seen alive, and encased in a big, round bulk of flesh! But, to say the truth, a prodigiously fat man always impresses me as a kind of hobgoblin; in the very extravagance of his mortal system, I find something akin to the immateriality of a ghost. And then that ridiculous old story darted into my mind, how that Byron died of fever at Missolonghi, above twenty years ago. More and more I recognize that we dwell in a world of shadows; and, for my part, I hold it hardly worth the trouble to distinguish between shadows in the mind, and shadows out of it. If there be any distinction, the former are rather more substantial."
    (Nathaniel Hawthorne, "P.'s Correspondence." Mosses From an Old Manse, 1846)
  • Hilaire Belloc on Inaccuracies
    "I know well enough why one bothers so absurdly about accuracy in such details; or, to put it otherwise, why mere slips of the pen and misspellings frighten us so much. But what I do not understand is how and why they take place in subjects which one knows as well as one's own name."
    (Hilaire Belloc, "On Inaccuracy," 1920)
  • The Relative Infrequency of Pen Slips
    "Handwriting proceeds much more slowly than speech and typing, so that pen slips are infrequent by general principle. The relative predominance of anticipations over transpositions among pen slips may also follow from the slowness of handwriting: because pen slips can be detected very rapidly relative to writing speed, writers can stop after detecting the first letter of transpositions, leaving on paper something indistinguishable from an anticipatory error (van Nes 1971). . . . Finally, words are more often left incomplete following pen than tongue or typing slips (van Nes 1971), as if writing slowness allows writers to detect an error, stop, and begin the word anew."
    (Donald G. MacKay, "Slips of the Pen, Tongue, and Typewriter: A Contrastive Analysis." Linguistic Disorders and Pathologies: An International Handbook, ed. by Gerhard Blanken et al. Walter de Gruyter, 1993)
  • Hazlitt's Comment on Robert Southey's Extended "Slip of the Pen"
    "Mr. Southey, in his late pamphlet, has very emphatically described the different effects of money laid out in war and peace. 'What bounds,' he exclaims, 'could imagination set to the welfare and glory of this island, if a tenth part, or even a twentieth of what the war expenditure has been, were annually applied in improving and creating harbours, in bringing roads to the best possible repair, in colonizing upon our waste lands, in reclaiming fens, and conquering tracts from the sea, in encouraging the liberal arts, endowing schools and churches,' etc. This is a singular slip of the pen in so noisy and triumphant a warmonger as the Poet Laureate. But logical inconsistency seems to be a sort of poetical license. Even in contradicting himself, he is not right. For the money as he proposes to employ it, would only degenerate into so many government jobs, and the low-lived mummery of Bible Societies."
    (William Hazlitt, "On the Effects of War and Taxes," 1817)
  • Sigmund Freud's Slip of the Pen: "Lapses in Writing"
    "On a sheet of paper containing principally short daily notes of business interest, I found, to my surprise, the incorrect date, 'Thursday, October 20th,' bracketed under the correct date of the month of September. It was not difficult to explain this anticipation as the expression of a wish. A few days before I had returned fresh from my vacation and felt ready for any amount of professional work, but as yet there were few patients. On my arrival I had found a letter from a patient announcing her arrival on the 20th of October. As I wrote the same date in September I may certainly have thought 'X ought to be here already; what a pity about that whole month!' and with this thought I pushed the current date a month ahead. In this case the disturbing thought can scarcely be called unpleasant; therefore after noticing this lapse in writing, I immediately knew the solution. In the fall of the following year I experienced an entirely analogous and similarly motivated lapse in writing. E. Jones has made a study of similar cases, and found that most mistakes in writing dates are motivated."
    (Sigmund Freud, Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Macmillan, 1915)
  • The Lighter Side of Pen Slips
    Marianne Patourel: Why did you send for me?
    William Ozanne: I'll tell you, Marianne. Now I must tell you. I never wanted you to know. I never thought you would ever find out. But now . . .
    Marianne Patourel: What did you never want me to find out?
    William Ozanne: That I accidentally wrote your name instead of [your sister] Marguerite's in the letter to your father.
    Marianne Patourel: You accidentally wrote my name? Our whole marriage has been a . . . slip of the pen?
    (Lana Turner and Richard Hart in Green Dolphin Street, 1947)