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A pebble in the path

Little things do us in. For want of a nail, the shoe was lost, and all that.*

A reader of The Sun sends in a complaint about an article in which the first sentence refers to two people, “neither of who live. …” He comments, rightly, that neither takes a singular verb in this case. Moreover, the object of the preposition of should be whom.

Fair enough.Then he adds, “Unfortunately when I see a lead paragraph with a grammatical error I don't have much interest in continuing to read it.”

He is perhaps a little disingenuous — he had enough interest to write to us — but the point is worth remembering. The easiest thing a reader can do is to stop reading. No one who buys the paper or checks in online is obligated to read our articles. No one who starts reading an article is obliged to continue with it. And readers are easily thrown off if little things distract them.

Little errors in grammar and usage diminish our credibility with the readers who notice them. (Not all readers are fussbudgets about grammar, but we gain nothing by irritating those who are.) Little errors in points of fact diminish our credibility with readers who know better. An opaque paragraph brings the reader to a dead stop. The eight paragraphs of throat-clearing it takes to get to the point of the story test the reader’s patience. That strained or wooden headline blocks the reader’s path to the text.

It doesn’t take much.

But it takes a great deal to capture and hold the reader’s interest: factual accuracy, precision and clarity of language, competent structure and organization, apt headlines. And at bottom, a decent regard for the reader, someone who does not deserve slipshod work. They can spot it, and they will drop it like a stone.

*In the unlikely event that you are under 40 years of age, the nursery rhyme, which perhaps prefigures the vulgar version of chaos theory, goes like this: “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the rider was lost. For want of a rider, the battle was lost. For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:09 AM | | Comments (1)


Why is it unlikely that I'm under 40? For the record, I'm a grammar/journalism geek in her 30s. And I knew the nursery rhyme (again -- geek).

JEM: I believe that the term "geek" indicates exceptionalism.

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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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