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If I'm so smart ...

Because newspapers publish articles about everything, copy editors have to know at least a little about everything to be effective at their jobs. That is why The Sun requires all aspirants to the copy desk to take a brutal applicant test.

It has 10 questions in each of 12 categories. Arts, business and economics, current events, English grammar and usage, geography, history, law, literature, mathematics, religion, science and medicine, and sports. In the past 11 years, only one applicant has scored above 90 percent in the general knowledge section (oh yes, there is a separate section on editing). That was an editor whom I fired, a know-it-all who could not get along with colleagues on the desk.

Think you’re up to it? Here are some questions, not from the current version.

1. What have "The Girl of the Golden West" and "Madame Butterfly" in common?

2. Define arbitrage.

3. Name two nations other than Russia that emerged from the former Soviet Union.

4. What is the difference between "apprise" and "appraise"?

5. Vladivostok is a seaport on what ocean?

6. Who was Sojourner Truth?

7. What is the significance of the Dred Scott decision?

8. What legal areas does the 14th Amendment to the Constitution concern?

9. Who wrote "The Iliad"?

10. In the United States, how many millions are there in a billion?

11. Define the term "gerrymander."

12. Briefly define "Rig-Veda."

13. Briefly define "Australopithecus."

14. Briefly define the term "hat trick" in hockey.

Think you’re ready to take a seat on the desk? Keep in mind that I’ve revised the applicant test twice since these questions were on it, and on neither occasion did I make it easier.

Posted by John McIntyre at 5:20 PM | | Comments (24)


So who did write "The Iliad"?

Yes, I would have failed your test, flamingly.

When I applied for a position as a reporter/makeup editor at The Sun in 1967 passage of an equally "brutal applicant test" was required of all prospective editorial staff. Much to my surprise I got the job and some years later was informed by the managing editor, Paul Banker, that despite my lack of journalistic experience a major reason I was hired was due to my being the first to achieve a perfect score on the test! which incidentally I had been sure I had flunked.

In a veiled attempt to assess reporter/editor credibility the test listed among its directions: Answer only those questions about which you are 100 percent certain. It's been nearly 40 years since that exam day in 1967 but I believe I answered fewer than one-quarter of the questions, thereby accounting for my expectation that I couldn't possibly have passed the test.


Yeah, but can Ken Jennings write headlines?

Whew. I knew 'em all except "arbitrage," but I looked it up and now I know what that is!

Of course, I'm a copy editor...

And what was your answer on "The Iliad," Ms. Strobel?

Full marks for Homer as author of "The Iliad."

Extra credit for arguing the point.


What is your daughter's answer to Question 9, Mr. McIntyre?

I like the idea of a knowledge test, but isn't the more valuable skill knowing when and how to quickly fact-check stuff you're not sure of?

I'd be curious to see how the results would differ if you cut the time allotment and stuck the applicants in front of a computer with Internet access.

My editor loves to call me barely literare and among the few answers I knew I got right in this test was Homer. :)
Also, can't agree less with Dan.
I was a reporter who took to copy editing reluctantly, but this blog has really taught me to love the job.

Dan wrote:
I like the idea of a knowledge test, but isn't the more valuable skill knowing when and how to quickly fact-check stuff you're not sure of?

Yes, that is an important skill. But to make the best use of that skill, you have to know when you're not sure of something. You have to stop on things like "Jane Austen's classic 'Wuthering Heights'" or "Beatles drummer George Harrison" (OK, these are easy examples, but you get the point) to even get to the looking-them-up part. Too often people don't, and then embarrassing errors slip in. (I recently fixed, in slot, a reference to Bob "Dillon" in a wire story.)

I agree that you need to know not only how, but when, to check an answer, but I didn't address the "when" I mentioned because I don't think it's measured by this test.

Consider two imaginary (and in the real world, nonexistent) copy editors. The first copy editor has "cultivated" skepticism; this copy editor has a good sense of when things are wrong and can look things up quickly and accurately. Let's say that the first guy is so good that he never makes a mistake looking something up or uses a bad source.

The second copy editor is really smart; this copy editor's skepticism is "informed" by knowledge. In the real world, this might mean that you just have a vague memory that seems to counterdict a statement in the story, and you act on that memory to fact-check, but let's say this copy editor is a true genius and remembers everything. She never makes a mistake either: she remembers everything and all her memories accord with the facts.

All other things being equal, if the first copy editor is more efficient, why should we hire the second copy-editor instead? Yet the test as it stands seems to be biased in favor of exactly this second type, which is why I propose Internet access and a shorter time limit.

These two types should be pitted against each other in a testing situation that attempts to replicate the real world, where both types could be equallly effective. I apologize for making this comment so long (I like this blog, and I'm not trying to be trollish) but I faced a comparable hiring decision a while ago and I've been wondering since if I made the right choice.

Counterdict? [paragraph 3 above]

Btw, I find it hard to believe the average educated person wouldn't know that Homer wrote The Iliad!

Dan-- I see that no one has commented on your use of the word "counterdict." Does this term actually exist? (I can't find it anywhere other than in your posting above.) Please educate me!

Unless I'm very much mistaken, Vladivostok is not a seaport on any ocean; it's on the Sea of Japan.

You are certainly correct Linda, but the Sea of Japan is an "arm" of the North Pacific Ocean.

Dan, I see what you're saying about the test, but I think such an attempt to "level the playing field" as it were would only be necessary if performance on this test were the sole criterion on which you were basing your hiring decision.

And who does that?

"Counterdict" was a stupid mistake made at 2:30 a.m., an especially stupid mistake considering where I was commenting. A quick Google search shows 2,000+ hits for the term, so I'm afraid to say that I can't claim to have invented this error.

I think it's still clear what I'm getting at here and I'm surprised there have been no comments on the substance of what I was saying. Has a made-up word really invalidated my point entirely?

I envy the "knowledge" of people with average education, Mr. Forman. Despite (or because of) my degrees in classics, I can't say that I *know* who wrote "The Iliad," or what "wrote" means in this context.

The online Encyclopaedia Britannica goes this far under *Homer*:
"presumed author of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Although these two great epic poems of ancient Greece have always been attributed to the shadowy figure of Homer, little is known of him beyond the fact that his was the name attached in antiquity by the Greeks themselves to the poems. That there was an epic poet called Homer and that he played the primary part in shaping the Iliad and the Odyssey—so much may be said to be probable. If this assumption is accepted, then Homer must assuredly be one of the greatest of the world's literary artists."

The dispute over authorship is long and ugly, though it has calmed down a lot. In another vein, journalists who attack a Harvard undergraduate's work as not hers ought to be uncomfortable with calling Homer the writer or author, even if he did, as seems likely, bring the material together with great polish and sophistication.

Re Homer, the Brittanica article "doth presume too much, methinks."

Among other things, it presumes that a person named Homer actually existed.

That would be my first answer to Question No. 9; answer No. 2 would be that Homer — if such a person actually existed — didn't write anything because his was an oral history; answer No. 3 would say that whatever Homer spoke was edited, gained accretions, etc. throughout the long written history of the Iliad, as its textual criticism has documented; therefore, answer No. 4 would be something like, "which Iliad"?

In my previous post (I almost wrote "my last post"!), I messed up and missed quotation marks before part of an Encyclopaedia Britannica quotation. Please read: "Although these two ..." in the second graf of the selection that began with "presumed author."

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

Thanks Dan; I honestly did not know if the word "counterdict" was correct or not. But regarding your two types of editors, it would seem to me that you'd want to hire the one who would check his/her facts even when unsure if anything is wrong.

I always did that as a reporter--even to the extent of allowing someone I was interviewing to think I might be stupid because of my asking questions that may have seemed to have obvious answers. That's also why I followed the directions on my "brutal applicant test" at The Sun and didn't guess at even those questions about which I was almost entirely certain.

As for Homer and the Iliad/Odyssey, I don't think this is analogous to Kaavya Viswanathan's "indiscretion" regarding Opal Mehta at all, any more than it would be to Jayson Blair's career in fiction at the Times. Robert Burns, for example, is regularly credited as the author of many poems, portions of which he did not actually "write" per se--nor did he falsely claim to have written them--but which he "(brought) ... together with great polish and sophistication."

The Carter Family did the same with many country songs for which they are credited as composer.

However the Homeric Question hangs in any generation, journalists should consider the danger of quick and easy answers. Please consider the cases of Richard Jewell and Wen Ho Lee. Costly, indeed.

Why did Socrates think that the Delphic Oracle had pegged him as the wisest? Because he knew that he knew nothing.

In the evil Jowett's translation (

"At last I went to the artisans, for I was conscious that I knew nothing at all, as I may say, and I was sure that they knew many fine things; and in this I was not mistaken, for they did know many things of which I was ignorant, and in this they certainly were wiser than I was. But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom -- therefore I asked myself on behalf of the oracle, whether I would like to be as I was, neither having their knowledge nor their ignorance, or like them in both; and I made answer to myself and the oracle that I was better off as I was.

"This investigation has led to my having many enemies of the worst and most dangerous kind, and has given occasion also to many calumnies, and I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name as an illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. And so I go my way, obedient to the god, and make inquisition into the wisdom of anyone, whether citizen or stranger, who appears to be wise; and if he is not wise, then in vindication of the oracle I show him that he is not wise; and this occupation quite absorbs me, and I have no time to give either to any public matter of interest or to any concern of my own, but I am in utter poverty by reason of my devotion to the god."

I agree with Christopher that test performance should never be the sole criterion for a job offer. I once instructed HR to check the references of the highest scorer on my copy editing test, only to find out that the one reference HR could get to even respond had pretty much nothing good to say about her. I offered the job to the second-highest scorer, who's worked out quite well.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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