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The Slips Pages

Speech Errors, or Slips of the Tongue

There are, to be sure, some persons whose attention is abnormally fixed upon the words rather than upon the topic under discussion, and they sometimes make a nuisance of themselves by pointing out the error and getting it laughed at or recorded before the business at hand is allowed to proceed. One should be kind to these people: they are either fools or linguists. (Sturtevant 1947)

So sad; so true!

With thanks to the good Dr. Edgar Sturtevant for a suitable beginning, I welcome you to the Slips Pages. The intention here is to provide a solid (and hopefully at least moderately amusing) introduction to the world of slip research. Every day, your speech production system is doing the incredible: allowing you to take a thought, any thought--even a truly nutty thought-- out of your head and crystalize it into words so that others can hear what you were thinking. Whether they approve or agree or understand is not your speech production system's problem. It just gets the job done, uncomplainingly performing dozens (if not hundreds) of precise, necessary tasks per sentence without your conscious supervision.

And, every day, your speech production system is making mistakes. Sometimes small ones that go unnoticed and sometimes horribly embarrassing ones that haunt you for a long, long time (more about some of those later...). The more you listen for errors, the more errors you will hear.

This main page introduces you to the kinds of speech errors that occur. The FAQ takes a more leisurely and sometimes whimsical look at slips research. The slips on these pages were made or recorded by me, my colleagues, or have been rounded up off the internet and various other sources. I've used only real, not created, data so you can see what people really say rather than what we might wish they said. Linguists may, in fact, make a nuisance of ourselves on occasion, but at least we do so with some integrity.

Perhaps the best thing about slips research is this: the data are fun to read and ponder. We hope you enjoy your journey through these pages. Please Email the Meb Waster if:

  • You have questions
  • Suggestions
  • Difficulties with the webpage
  • Interesting ideas
  • You would like to contribute a slip that you have heard or made for possible world-wide fame as a featured slip
  • You think of something else we should mention or link to
  • You've never emailed a linguist before and wonder what that might be like!

Featured Error

  • Utterance: You kissed the death of that!
  • Target: You gave that the kiss of death. (or something similar.
  • Discussion: It's a syntactic slip: an example of how one thing goes wrong and causes a sequence of small disasters. The speaker first anticipated the word 'kiss' and put it in the verb slot of the sentence. (It's interesting that the correct -ed ending (pronounced [t]) was added to the word.) If that had been the end of the error, you would have heard 'You kissed that the of death. The thing that I find most interesting here is that the rhythm of the sentence was preserved in the error. The capital X shows a stressed syllable:
    Target: X X X x X x X
    Utterance: X X x X x X.

    We could probably go on about this for some time, but we can stop with the combination of an anticipated word and preservation of the rhythm of the sentence.

A Few More Introductory Remarks

Linguists study slips of the tongue, or speech errors, to find out how the human speech production system works. Observing the kinds of errors which occur can tell us how knowledge of language is stored in the brain and how the speech production system accesses and uses that knowledge.

We can't say precisely what causes an error: certainly anxiety, distraction, excitement, or fatigue put stress on a person and stress on any system might push its limits causing error. Stress could as easily cause you to forget your car keys or spill your coffee on your sister's homework as make an error in speech. We tend to discuss speech errors in terms of what went wrong rather than why it went wrong.

We use the term error because what was said really does represent a kind of linguistic accident if you will, but linguists don't attach any of the usual negative baggage to the term error. Speech errors aren't "wrong" or "bad" or evidence of carelessness or sloppy speech. Even professional orators find themselves surprised by a speech error at intervals. Linguists don't judge people for making speech errors. In fact, we're grateful for them since what happens in an error can teach us so much.

What is a Speech Error Precisely

First things first, as they say. Let's define our terms.

Technically, a speech error (or slip) is an unintentional movement, addition, deletion, blending or substitution of material within an utterance or between utterances. (Fromkin 1973, 1980; Stemberger 1983). This means that the speaker says something they didn't mean to say. You can often "feel it" when you've made a slip. It's a sudden realization that what just came out of your mouth was not what you'd been planning to say. You are as surprised to hear it as anybody else. On the other hand, lots of your slips go totally unnoticed and uncorrected.

Crucially, the utterance is a snafu involving unintentional processes. A slip is not bad grammar, colorful or idiosyncratic speech, incomplete knowledge of a language, interference from another language, or intentional silliness. Speech errors are not caused by lack of information. If you answer a question incorrectly, lie, mislead, guess poorly or if you are confused in other ways, what you say is not necessarily a speech error. Punning may be uncouth and swearing may be against your mother's wishes, but neither of these is a speech error. Stutterers, and people with other speech disorders, make speech errors, but neither a stutter nor slurred speech are in and of themselves slips of the tongue. Read more about speech disorders courtesy of The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association .

In the technical sense, none of the following examples count as slips:

  • He don't work for City Auto anymore.

    Even if your eighth grade English teacher wouldn't like this, it's not a slip of the tongue. It's what the speaker really intended to say.

  • You'all move it on over 'cause I ain'ta gonna wait with this here dadbern mess o' glop much longer!

    I don't exactly know what this means, but I bet the speaker did. There are many varieties of English around the country and around the world and people who speak them are not making speech errors all the time. This is not standard English, but it's not a slip.

  • Is that boughten bread or is it homemade?

    I say boughten all the time. It really is what I call processed bread you buy in the stores. (Blech!) In case you think that's nuts, I'll pass on this factoid: This summer I learned by rereading the Little House books, that Laura Ingalls and her family said "boughten". So, not only is it not a speech error, it's swell literature. So there!

  • Oh, wook at the wittle bitty baby!

    Admit it: you've said this and when you did say it, you meant it just as it came out of your mouth. More about speech directed to children.

  • Baba, what is it funny?

    It is not safe to speak at my house. I wrote this down when my youngest daughter said it. she was about three at the time, trying to ask her dad what he was laughing at. Children go through regular stages in acquiring language, slowly building up their understanding of how sentences are to be put together. This utterance is an accurate representation, according to her, of how to ask this question of her baba. Nobody, least of all her, was surprised by this utterance. To read more about kids' errors, see The Slip FAQ.

  • Utterance: I'm going to use a combine-ment of pink, yellow, and purple.
    Target: combination.

    This was said by my oldest child on September 29, 2005, two days after their sixth birthday. It's not a speech error. they didn't know the word combination. They were making good use of the rules of English as they understood them. For what it's worth, if this were originally said by an adult, it *would* be a speech error since most adults probably do know the word combination. Now, at our house, we occasionally intentionally say "combinement" for combination because (I guess) we are the sort of people who mock our own children!

  • I'd like a combine-ment of salsa, beans, cheese and onions on my nachos this time, please, Sr. Nacho Man.

    Because we say this on purpose, (because we think we are being funny), it's not an error.

  • Dude! We like, had, like, the whole thing, like, right there, and it was, like, so totally awesome...and I was, like: Man, this is, like, cool!

    This may, like, drive you crazy, but it's not an error. People who use "like" a lot aren't surprised to hear themselves doing it. It's true that they use it only half-consciously and can't explain to you where in a sentence it goes or what it means, but most people can't explain the use of "the" and "a" either. So, it's, like, not an error, OK?

  • My mother knew we didn't get very well, but I am sure she never imagined how bad might be two fierces closeted in the same cage, fighting each one for dominating the small territory.

    I truly love this example. It came from a composition in one of my writing classes in 1999 when I was teaching in San Germán, Puerto Rico. The author is a native speaker of Spanish with a fabulous mind and a well-used bilingual dictionary. This is just what she intended to write. She probably knew some of it was technically not correct English, but this was the best she could do at the time.

  • After the ids-kay go to eep-slay, we can make some opcorn-pay, okay?!

    Admit it: you've said this, too, right? Or at least you did until the kids learned Pig Latin and used it faster and better than you could. Or, if you haven't said it yet, you will some happy day. Again, you meant it; it's not an error. The Oogle-gay people mean it, too, when they do it.

  • Oh, crap... this lousy piece of XXXX!

    I said this...into a microphone...at church. It was exactly what I was thinking and it came out of my mouth perfectly. Thanks so much, Speech Production System! As you might imagine, I wished later that I hadn't said it, but it was flawlessly executed and came out beautifully. Not an error in the linguistic sense ... just really bad judgment.

  • Uh... well...that was a question that...uh...well, I um, guess I'll...I'll...can you maybe...uh...ask that again?

    This is a recreation of me trying to answer a really weird question asked to me by a nice (but possibly from Mars) student in one of my Introduction to Linguistics courses. It's not that my speech production system failed to execute my speech plan; it's that I never really had much of a plan when I started speaking. See the difference? Filled pauses like "um" and "uh" and restarts are not errors in speech. The simplest explanation of these phenomena is that they are what you do when you need more time to figure out what you are going to say, or when you change your mind in the middle of an utterance.

    OK, so you may well ask at this point: Having eliminated all that, what is a slip of the tongue? They come in many kinds:

    Slips can involve almost anything: single segments (that is, consonants and/or vowels), parts of words, words, phrases or whole sentences. Let's look at these one at a time.


    Phonological Slips: Problems with Sounds

    It's possible to make a mistake when speaking that simply involves a single sound. In fact, up to sixty percent of English slips fit this description. Look at these examples:

    • (Spoken by an irritated voter: September 2004, Bowling Green, Ohio)
      Utterance: The Gore pampaign
      Target: The Gore campaign
    • (Spoken by one friend to another. The speaker is my friend, the multitalented and mysterious KH, who is a brilliant shining source of error. Not sure I could live without her! What she meant was roughly: "That was our plan before we got that *&^%$* phone call.")
      Utterance: That was the pre-phone flan.
      Target: That was the pre-phone plan.
    • (Spoken by one rattled spouse to the other)
      Utterance: "Don't you fake your shinger at me!"
      Target: "Don't you shake your finger at me!"

    These poor, frustrated folk all had trouble placing their consonants in the right spots in their utterances. In the first slip above, [p] in the second syllable of "campaign" came forward and replaced the initial consonant. This is called an anticipation because, presumably, it is a result of looking forward in the utterance and getting material before you need it. Anticipations, by the way, are the most common kind of phonological slip in English. Listen to the people around you for a day or two and you'll almost certainly hear a phonological anticipation or two. Then, you can say, perhaps wisely nodding at the same time, "What a fine example of a phonological antecipation error you have just made, my friend." Come on, do it! You know you want to.

    In the second error, the [f] sound in phone replaces the [p] sound in the following word "plan". We say that this [f] sound (which occurred earlier in the utterance) perseverated. This means, it hung around longer than it should have and got reused. The technical term is "phonological perseveration". Beware: don't be confused by the fact that we spell the word "phone" with a "ph". It's pronounced like "f". In speech errors, we are always working with sounds, never with the written forms of words. Yes, people do make errors in writing. Have a look at writing and typing and braille in the Slip FAQ.

    The third slip above is the most dramatic. Here, the flustered speaker swapped two sounds creating what is commonly called a "spoonerism"--named for the good Anglican priest and scholar Rev. Dr. William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930). In this example, the first sounds of "shake" and "finger" are exchanged or metathesized. Note that the first sound of "shake" is written with two letters, but it is a single sound just like the "ph" above in "phone". (I offer for free here the undisputable fact that "Metathesis" would be a terrific name for your next cat. T. s. Eliot simply overlooked it. Not his fault really.)

    These kinds of mistakes give us information about how we assemble the sounds that compose words. Imagine that you have a sort of typewriter in your head. Each key of this typewriter has on it one of the sounds in your language. There is a key for the first sound in "f-inger" and the first sound in "sh-ake" and the first sound in "s-pouse". There is also a key for each different vowel sound. There is a key for the vowel sound in "crook", one for "croak" and one for "crock". When you want to speak a certain word, you have to hit these keys in the right order. To make this easier, keys that you are planning to hit light up. They also stay lit for a while after you hit them. That "lighting up" - called "activation" - makes it likely that any key you hit by accident will be one that is already part of your speaking plan. You might accidentally hit a lit-up key too early (an anticipation) or reuse a key you didn't mean to reuse (perseveration) or you might switch the order of two keys (a metathesis). It's quite rare to make a mistake that involves a sound that is not part of your plan--that is, to use a key that has not already been lit up for use in speaking. I'm quite certain, for example, that I've said all of the following at one time or another: the copeous production of errors in speech of all kinds being perhaps my only super power.

    • speech sperrors
    • spreach errors
    • each sperrors
    But, unless I was also in the same sentence talking about gloves or golf or glutinous glop, I have probably never said any of these:
    • gleech gerrors
    • geech glerrors
    • eech lerrors

    The study of speech errors helped create and support the hypothesis that the activation of consonants and vowels occurs in this way and helps predict what kinds of mistakes are likely. It's the beginning of an explanation of why things happen as they do.

    Note that you can also make errors with vowels, or with whole syllables. Occasionally, albeit less frequently, you might make an error where you put the stress on the wrong syllable in an English word. the fact that this happens relatively rarely is information linguists can use to understand more about how word stress works.


    Morphological Slips: Problems with Meaningful Parts of Words

    Words in English are often made up of more than one meaningful part. Simple examples are words like "fireplace" and "doorknob". You can easily see that there are two parts of both of these words and that each has a meaning. The same is true of a word like "cats". One part of the word means "that inscrutable feline" and the other part means "plural". We say that all of these words--"fireplace", "doorknob", and "cats"--have two morphemes. When you talk, you can substitute one morpheme for another, leave out or add a morpheme, or simply misplace a morpheme. Here are some examples of morphemic speech errors.
    • Utterance: "We're not the only ones with screw looses!"
      Fromkin, 1973
      (Not only a good speech error, but profoundly and universally true!)
    • Utterance: And the world miss outs.
      Target: And the world misses out.
    • Utterance: I have to untie your shoes.
      Target: I have to retie your shoes.
    • Utterance: The last time we dram.
      (dram rhymes with swam)
      Target: The last time we drummed.

    It's sort of hard to know what exactly the target was in the first error. It was probably "loose screws" or "screws loose". In either case, you can see that the "s" that belongs on "screw-s" got moved onto "loose".

    The second error is similar: the -s (really an -es sequence pronounced more or less as /Iz/), was lost off the end of the verb 'misses' and ended up attaching itself to the word 'out' and getting itself pronounced as a simple /s/.

    In the third error, the speaker (a frazzled parent) put the wrong prefix on the verb "tie".

    In the forth, the speaker failed to put the right past tense marker on the regular verb "to drum". Instead, she changed the vowel to make it fit one kind of pattern of past tenses in English: swim-swam, run-ran, ring-rang. She did notice her error and corrected this one.

    What we learn from errors of this sort is that these meaningful parts of words ...these morphemes, are real building blocks in speech production. In some cases, we assemble words before we utter them, choosing the correct combinement of roots and prefixes and suffixes as we go.

    English has its share of morphological slips, but languages like Turkish and Spanish, where there are almost always more than one morpheme per word, have many more. For more information on Slips in other languages, see The Slip FAQ


    Lexical Slips: Problems with Whole Words

    Lexical slips occur when you get the wrong word. They come in three sorts: semantically, phonologically, and environmentally mediated. We'll discuss these one at a time.

    Semantically Mediated Lexical Slips

    A semantically mediated lexical slip occurs when one word replaces another and the two are related in meaning. Opposites also commonly substitute for one another. Here are some typical lexical slips.
    • Utterance: Honey, did you remember to put the milk back in the oven?
      Target: Honey, did you remember to put the milk back in the fridge?
    • Utterance: Turn on the air! It's too blasted cold in here.
      Target: Turn on the air! It's too blasted hot in here!

    In the first error, names for two kitchen appliances get mixed up. In the second, a word replaces its opposite. Both kinds are very common.

    Parents are a good source of this kind of lexical error. If you grew up with brothers and sisters, you occasionally heard your mother yell things like this as her speech production mechanism struggled to come up with the right name for the right child:

    • Mary, Laura... Carrie ... GRACE! Get over here right now!
    If there are more than two kids, the recitation almost always goes in birth order. This reflects the way the forms are stored and usually recited: not, with apologies to Tommy and Dicky Smothers, who Mom likes best. And yes, the parent always knows which child she or he needs front and center, hence the mounting frustration as the list of wrong names lengthens.

    The Dreaded "Sweetheart Slip"

    Of course, there's also that terrible moment when you realize that you have just addressed a new sweetheart by the name of his/her predecessor. You've done this, admit it, and suffered consequences no doubt.

    • Oh, Nellie...uh...Laura, I do love you so!

    These are ordinary examples of lexical slips of the tongue. With apologies to Dr. Freud, they don't necessarily mean anything about the inner workings of the subconscious mind. Names for familiar people are certainly semantically related and swap for one another just like the oven and the fridge do. Yes, I have heard of people making the Sweetheart Slip and emerging unscathed by immediately entering into a passionate discussion of speech errors and their genesis. See, linguistics is good for you!

    Sometimes, two words get selected instead of one and get blended together. For example, I have two daughters whose names are Claire and Guo. We often hear "Guaire", "Cluo", "Gluo" and other variations at our house.

    Here's a very nice word blend, given to us by none other than President George W. Bush. He was probably trying to say "misunderstood" and "underestimated" at the same time.

    • They misunderestimated me.
      Bentonville, Arkansas; November 6, 2000

    President Bush was a pretty good source of speech errors, for which I professionally and sincerely thank him. For a collection of Bushisms, click here.

    Note that many Bushisms are not true speech errors but simply awkward turns of phrase--or things that may have sounded fine in context but look odd in print.

    Phonologically Mediated Lexical Slips

    Phonologically mediated slips occur when the two words, target and utterance, sound alike but are not necessarily related in meaning. I offer you the classic example from the collection of one of linguistics' best-known speech error researchers, Victoria Fromkin:

    • Utterance: White Anglo-Saxon prostitute.
      Target: White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.

    The two words involved have the same starting sounds, the same vowels, same stress pattern and same number of syllables. These errors are often called "malapropisms." The term comes from the name of Mrs. Malaprop, a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's comedy, The Rivals (1775). For more fun with (primarily intentional) malapropisms see the Fun-With-Words Malaprop page or check out any of the many fabulous Smothers Brothers skits.

    Remember that it only counts as a speech error if the person is aware of both words, knows one should not replace another and is not trying to be funny.

    Interestingly, people get a lot more flack for a malapropism than they do for a semantically or environmentally (see below) mediated slip. The (unconscious) supposition is that the speaker did not actually know the right word. Although it is possible that some malapropisms are caused by lexical ignorance or misinformation, many of them derive from perfectly ordinary misfirings of the speech production system and indicate nothing about education or vocabulary size. It is even conceivable that people with larger vocabularies may make more such errors, since they do in fact have more words to choose from.

    Sometimes these two factors--semantic similarity and phonological similarity--gang up together in speech errors. Research by Dr. Zenzie Griffin suggests that there is more name confusion in a household where the children are called Keith, Kent and Kurt than there would be in a household where the boys are named Thad, Rocko and Ethelbert, which sound nothing alike.

    Next time you have to explain the Sweetheart Slip to some irritated partner, consider whether the names you swapped for one another were also phonologically similar. More arguments on your side!

    Environmentally Mediated Lexical Slips

    These are errors caused when something you are looking at, or thinking about, interferes in your sentence.

    • Utterance: I would like a small fries and a salad.
      Target: I would like a small golden violin and a bow.

    Yes, this one is mine. I couldn't resist putting this one in even if it is just flat weird. I was telling a story to my daughter. It was late, we were riding on an Amtrak to the middle of nowhere and had been riding for a very, very long time and I was starving, wondering if we'd miss the call to the dining car for lunch and thinking more about food than the pretty little story about musical fairies that I was inventing. These are more like the kind of slips Dr. Freud was talking about. They are reasonably rare, but do occur.

    This kind of slip often occurs when something you are looking at, like a passing billboard, pops into a place in your utterance where something else should be.


    Syntactic Slips: Problems with Whole Sentences

    There are a number of ways things can go wrong with entire sentences. We don't mean sentence fragments, or other kinds of casual speech. We're talking about unintended utterances. These are not counted as syntactic slips:

    • Get 'im!
    • uh, Not me! I ain't a-gonna get 'im! You get 'im!
    • Naw. Let's just let 'im go then.
    • 'Kay.

    Ordinary, error free speech is characterized by this sort of truncated talk. Really listen to the people around you, and you will see that conversations really consist of fragmented sentences sprinkled with "ums" and "ers". If you ever read an accurate transcript of a conversation, it looks a little crazy at first. the people seem to be stumbling and bumbling all over the place, horribly inarticulate. Listen to the same stretch of speech, however, and it sounds perfectly reasonable. We simply edit out the restarts, ums and speech errors as we listen. One of the ways to deliberately make someone look bad is to simply write down exactly what he or she says, including all and every small disfluency or error. Mark Liberman, in this 2004 language log post discusses the treatment former President Bush has received as a result of his reputation for speech errors.

    Perhaps the easiest kind of syntactic slip to diagnose is a sentence combination error. In these errors, the speaker has two different ways of saying the same thing ready at the same time. Somehow, no decision is made to suppress one and go ahead with the other. The result is a combination of both sentences. Here's an example.

    • Utterance: Get these little gnomes off my life!
      Target one: Get these little gnomes off my back!
      Target two: Get these little gnomes out of my life!

    Sometimes, words get switched around:

    • where wings take dream.
      where dreams take wing.
      President George W. Bush
      La Crosse, Wisconsin, October 18, 2000
      Note that, although the two words "dream" and "wing" switched places, the "-s" ending on the noun stayed put. I like this error a lot, but if President Bush had been reading the speech (which I assume was the case) rather than reciting it, we probably shouldn't count it. Well, probably we shouldn't count it in either case unless we are clear about its context. People do make errors when reading aloud: tune into any live newscast for long enough and you'll hear some. People also make errors with memorized material as any fan of live theater can attest, but these are not precisely the same as those in spontaneous speech.

    Chief Justice Roberts made a syntactic slip when he bobbled the word order in reciting his part of the Presidential Oath of Office in 2009. Click here to watch speech error history unfolding live. (Yes, they regave President Obama the Oath of Office a few days later...just to be sure it took!

    Again though, if Justice Roberts were reading, we can't be sure what exactly was going on. And we probably shouldn't use it, but I couldn't resist.

    Here is one I know was not a result of reading:

    • And there will be gnashing and weeping of teeth.
      Target: weeping and gnashing of teeth.
      Said by my friend PD in a perfectly calm, reasonable voice. (Weeping of teeth? Oh my ... heavens!)

    It's sometimes difficult to pin down syntactic slips. It's hard to draw the line between inelegant speech and a genuine slip. Is this a slip?

    • Does she have an office hour I could come see her during?
      I said this to the secretary of a faculty member at Southern Illinois University in 1992. I wanted desperately to make a good impression on this professor, (the aforementioned historical linguist), but I was nervous. It really does sound awkward, and I really should have been able to do better, but it's hard to pin down exactly what went awry there. Maybe, it doesn't look so bad in print, but out loud it sounded...um... like ... not so fluent.

    Here is some speech which has been precisely transcribed with unforgiving exactness! Can you find the one slip?

    • Okay--that's fine. Now, on the investigation, you know, the Democratic break-in
      thing, we're back to the--in the, the problem area because the FBI is not under control, because Gray doesn't exactly know how to control them, and they have, their
      investigation is now leading into some productive areas, because they've been able
      to trace the money, not through the money itself, but through the bank, you know,
      sources--the banker himself. And, and it goes in some directions we don't want it to
      go. Ah, also there have been some things, like an informant came in off the street to
      the FBI in Miami, who was a photographer or has a friend who is a photographer who
      developed some films through this guy, Barker, and the films had pictures of
      Democratic National Committee letter head documents and things. So I guess, so it's
      things like that that are gonna, that are filtering in. Mitchell came up with
      yesterday, and John Dean analyzed very carefully last night and concludes, concurs
      now with Mitchell's recommendation that the only way to solve this, and we're set up
      beautifully to do it, ah, in that and that...the only network that paid any attention to it last night was NBC...

      For access to more of the Nixon transcripts and audio see http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/watergate.html.

    This stretch of speech, like most, is characterized by restarts and hesitations. The change from "conclude" to "concur" was most likely an error. It would help to hear the audio, to hear if Mr. Haldeman's intonation would tell us if he changed the verb because he felt he had made an error.

    With your own utterances, it is easier to tell what is a slip and what isn't. You have access to what you intended to say and can make a more-or-less intuitive determination. You usually feel genuinely surprised to hear what you actually said if it's a slip. Sometimes, you can even detect a slip before you say it. You have a feeling about what you were going to say and you notice that it was not going to be what you intended to say.


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