I’ve mentioned my “missing word problem” here before. You may have noticed it in reading the blog or my comment replies–my tendency to skip over a small but necessary word when I write. This is more than a simple problem with typos, which I can easily catch and fix when proofreading.
The mystery of the missing words had proved intractable enough that I’d given up on solving it.
Until now, that is! I’m reading “The Mind’s Eye” by Oliver Sacks and right there in Chapter 2 is a potential answer: aphasia.
Aphasia is a disruption in expressive or receptive language. It can be as severe as a complete loss of understanding of language, including the inability to speak or think in words. (Aphasia usually affects all forms of language, not just speech.) “Global aphasia” often results from a brain tumor, stroke, traumatic brain injury or degenerative brain disease.
However, milder forms of aphasia are characterized by:
- difficulty in finding words (especially nouns, in particular proper nouns)
- a tendency to use an incorrect word without a change in sentence structure
In discussing notable case histories of aphasia, Sacks mentions the English writer Samuel Johnson, who experienced aphasia after a stroke at the age of 73. While Johnson eventually regained the ability to speak, he “made uncharacteristic mistakes, sometimes omitting a word or writing the wrong word” in his writing and correspondence.
Adding Up the Evidence
I omit words when I write–more often than the average person it seems–at a rate of about one missing word per one to three hundred words, more if I’m tired (yes, I’ve started keeping track).
The missing words are small but important, like not, an and the. I need to proofread multiple times to catch them, often in an alternative format, because my brain likes to help me out by pretending the missing word exists and skimming right over the omission.
I sometimes use the wrong word without noticing. In writing, it tends to be a word that is close in spelling or sound, though not necessarily in meaning, like bring instead of brain. When speaking, my substitutions are more entertaining. For example, last night The Scientist was using a kitchen towel to clean up a mess.
“Put that in the dishwasher when you’re done,” I suggested helpfully.
He looked at the towel and frowned. “You mean the washing machine.”
Right. That’s exactly what I meant. And what I thought I’d said. This happens a few times a week and I rarely notice that I’ve done it until someone points it out. It’s more common when I’m fatigued or in a setting with a lot of distractions.
I have trouble with retrieving words, especially names of people and things:
“I’ll recycle the, the . . .” I’m staring at the newspaper and pointing at the newspaper and I cannot for the life of me come up with the word for it. All I have is a blank–a tangible, almost physical hole in my mind where newspaper should be. “I’ll recycle that that . . . thing after I finish reading it. $%&*! WHY ARE THERE SO MANY DIFFERENT WORDS FOR THINGS?!”
I’d been attributing the increasing frequency of gaps in word retrieval to getting older. It’s frustrating, especially when I’m trying to find the right word for a written piece and it refuses to surface. Sometimes it will be hours before I can come up with the word I’m looking for; fortunately I’ve learned how to set the problem to process in the background. This often results in me randomly exclaiming things like “dichotomy!” at inappropriate times.
Is Aphasia the Answer?
If this is indeed mild aphasia, then I finally have an explanation for some minor but annoying language difficulties. Perhaps my auditory processing delay is a form of receptive aphasia?
Then again, this could all be tied to Asperger’s. I’ve heard others on the spectrum mention difficulty with finding words at times. Our issues with processing spoken language are widely known. The missing word problem, though? Does anyone else experience that to the degree that I do?
Eager to learn more than what Sacks presents in his brief chapter, I Googled aphasia and instantly regretted it. Here’s what I found at that reliable bastion of truth, Wikipedia:
“Acute aphasia disorders usually develop quickly as a result of head injury or stroke, and progressive forms of aphasia develop slowly from a brain tumor, infection, or dementia.”
My language glitches have become frequent enough in the last 2-3 years that I can no longer ignore them. The missing words. The struggle to retrieve words. The odd, unpredictable substitutions. The Scientist says that my receptive language difficulties seem to have gotten worse in the past year too. I ask him to repeat himself a lot, especially when he’s not facing me and I don’t have the advantage of watching his lips.
And this is where I think it pays to stop Googling and back slowly away from the neurology textbook.
The language oddities I’ve described here are firmly in the “inconvenient” category for me right now. Unless that changes, I’ll consider the similarities to aphasia symptoms an interesting bit of trivia. Stay tuned . . .
**In proofreading this multiple times, I found 7 missing words (my, their, a, I’m, an, the and of) and 1 incorrect substitution (ever for even). There may be others that I missed.