From an article in the New York Times:

Whatever the reason, Mr. Quayle remains an unknown quality to almost half of the electorate, despite [...]

And from a New York Times blog post:

The Huskers (30-1) enter the N.C.A.A. tournament as an unknown quality to most fans.

Yes, I know, the following question might be Not A Real Question, but I'm under the impression that unknown quality doesn't fit the meaning of the above sentences.

Yes, and always in the case I'm right, two sentences quoted from The New York Times are not enough to get definitive conclusions, but is there some common problem among English speakers in confusing "unknown quality" with "unknown quantity"?

  • 4
    My mind corrected it to "unknown quantity" the first two times I read it. It wasn't until I tripped over "unknow" and re-read the question that I realized it said "quality".
    – user230
    Mar 20, 2013 at 20:41
  • @snail, yes, I agree or at least I guess since one cannot read sentences before they are written, it is simple to confuse "quality" with "quantity". It needs a serious profreading.
    – user114
    Mar 20, 2013 at 20:59
  • 1
    @Carlo Spotting errors can be quite difficult! The best solution I've found is to read my work aloud.
    – user230
    Mar 20, 2013 at 21:12
  • 1
    In both cases, it would have been better just to write "unknown" and leave out the "quality". The danger of adding extra words...
    – user485
    Mar 20, 2013 at 22:07

1 Answer 1


This type of error is fairly common. They're often called "eggcorns" and there's even an online database for them. Some examples:

new leash on life (instead of lease)
signal out (instead of single)
ex-patriot (instead of expatriate)
holidays sauce (instead of hollandaise)
baited breath (instead of bated)

The defining characteristic of an "eggcorn" type of error is that the incorrect word still makes some weird kind of sense in the same contexts as the original idiom. The result is that native speakers will sometimes defend their eggcorn as the correct form of the phrase, and/or make up etymologies (or "etymythologies") which sound like they could make sense... if only the data backed it up.

That all said, it's really hard to figure out how common this particular "unknown quality" error is, because there are contexts where this phrase (or, really, word-pair) is correct. For what it's worth, it's not listed in the above-mentioned eggcorn database, which means either that it's not very common, or that the maintainers of the site don't think it qualifies as an eggcorn (because they don't think "quality" makes sense in contexts where it should be "quantity").

  • In the same vein, there's in the same vain.
    – J.R.
    Mar 21, 2013 at 1:17

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