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More in sorrow than in anger

I had expected better.

I’m halfway through William W. Freehling’s The Road to Disunion: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861. It is the continuation of the author’s The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854, and it is a substantial work. Professor Freehling, formerly at Johns Hopkins, now at the University of Kentucky, has constructed a formidable account of the regional differences — within the South as well as between the South and North — and class and economic differences in the series of crises that led up to the Civil War.

Anyone who is drawn to the Confederate apologists’ argument that the Civil War was not about slavery will find correction in Freehling’s explanation of how slavery was inextricably intertwined with political issues (the Southern states’ political power in Congress tied to slavery, the Whigs’ collapse over the failure of the Northern and Southern wings to straddle the issue), economic issues (free labor vs. slave), demographic issues (the increase in immigration sharply outpacing population growth in the slave states), and other elements. The North, he argues, found slavery intolerable not out of a deep concern for the slaves or their freedom, but over the Slave Power’s intolerable repression of republican liberties, its sway over the rest of the nation.

It is, as I said, an impressive work, and it is marred by minor blemishes.

Sixteen years ago, when I read the previous volume, I encountered numerous typographical errors and slips in usage. Sloveholders was one. I wrote to the publisher, Oxford University Press (Oxford University Press!), to deplore the slack copy editing. (Samuel Johnson said in his Life of Milton, “No man forgets his original trade: the rights of nations and of kings sink into questions of grammar, if grammarians discuss them.”)

The OUP did not trouble to reply.

Now I discover the same scattering of minor irritants throughout this book: discrete for discreet, censoring for censuring, damming for damning, and more of the same. I don’t blame Professor Freehling for them. He had much on his mind, and besides, as Mr. Mencken wrote, “No man, I argued, could be expected to read his own copy; it was a psychological impossibility.” The fault lies with the publishing house.

Copy editing, I know full well, is time-consuming and expensive. It must be done by human beings, not machinery, and by human beings with intelligence and expertise. If a house as distinguished as the Oxford University Press can’t be troubled to correct these minor flaws and distractions in an important work, then what other publisher will take more care for the quality of its imprint?

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:20 AM | | Comments (2)


Sadly, it's economics, I'm sure. Or is it? Would the publisher even bother if it were a runaway bestseller? Sadder yet: many readers don't even care, I fear -- because they don't perceive the errors.

What's even worse -- and you probably can at least partially blame the writer -- is that most word processing sofware is capable of catching most of these types of errors. They pass spell-checks, but I know Word's grammar checking can catch some of these mistakes.

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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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