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Spot the error

An invitation from a reader:

See if you can spot the error in the following quote:

The DRC process "pretty much takes the community out of the picture," said Alan Zukerberg, an activist from Pikesville. "They're left to basically complaining to their council person, and hope that they're council person can play games."

It’s an enduring mystery that professional journalists, college graduates who make their living by the language, have trouble distinguishing it's from its or, as in this example, among their, they’re and there. And while any writer might mistakenly type in the wrong word — a synapse misfiring in a moment of distraction — one would have thought that the copy editing and proofreading of the article would have caught this.

A longtime reader complains that we continue to write about opening arguments in trials, "the mark of a novice court reporter." In trials, the opposing lawyers present opening statements and closing arguments.

And there is this, in the lead paragraph of an article:

Health guru Ian Smith paced back and forth on an outdoor stage and yelled out to his audience, at times pleading, cajoling and even bargaining with them to loose weight.

At the least, three copy editors should have had an opportunity to catch loose for lose in this sentence (not to speak of the reporter’s and assigning editor’s responsibilities, particularly for the lead of the story). "Inexcusable,"says the reader who complained about this one.

Well, yes. But still.

Some semesters back, one of my students experienced a flash of insight into copy editing, saying, “You catch 19 errors in a story and then get penalized for the 20th. It' just not fair." A story with only 20 errors may be better than average. Some years back, a veteran reporter set to work on the city desk commented after the first week, "Reading other people’s raw copy is like looking at your grandmother naked."

The process by which the sausage is inserted into the casing here is by no means as orderly and efficient as we would like. On a given day, assigning editors and copy editors will catch and correct a multitude of errors, some factual, some linguistic. And on that given day, a certain number of errors will slip past everyone, despite our best and most conscientious efforts.

The errors that slip through our hands irritate you and embarrass us. It is the case today, as it was yesterday and almost certainly will be tomorrow:

The Sun regrets the errors.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:25 AM | | Comments (3)


Before I got to the they're/their error, I thought the trouble was the clunky "to basically complaining to" construction.

The reporter would have better served readers by paraphrasing the first part of the compound sentence.

"They're left to basically complaining to their council person," may be what the activist said. But the awkward construction creates a hurdle that readers must navigate to get to the much more interesting second half of the compound sentence.

I'd be willing to be that the activist just changed thoughts midway, and "They're left basically complaining" is how that should have been transcribed. There's very often a sort of malice in not editing normal false starts out of people's speech; it leaves the reader feeling smugly superior to the speakers and less inclined to agree with them. Especially if the reader is already feeling like dismissing the speaker out of hand.

Regarding the reader who wondered if anyone could "spot the error in the following quote," the passage they pointed out doesn't contain a quote. What it contains is a quotation. Quote is a verb, quotation is a noun. A quotation is what you get when you quote someone.

True, the Oxford dictionary includes an entry that the word quote may be used as a noun, but this usage is noted as being informal (and, I would think, not the preferred choice in a post about language and usage).

JEM: Two things: First, I don't reword what people say in comments, just as we do not reword quoted speech or text in the paper.

And second, I detect the pull of professional jargon. However much "quote" as a noun may be scorned among purists, it is universal among newspaper journalists. "Didn't you get any quotes with that story?"

But beyond the cant terms of the business, I suspect that the informal usage is gradually replacing the formal one, as is so frequently the case in American English.

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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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