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The Sun regrets

“I’ve stopped reading The Sun because of all the errors.”

You can hear this remark when readers call in to local talk shows. You can see it in the complaints that Paul Moore, our reader editor, sifts through daily. You can read it in letters to the editor.

And there are errors. Producing a text of tens of thousands of words every 24 hours means that typos, misspellings of names, errors in factual details and other flaws will slip through.

People are inherently prone to error. Kathy Schenck’s blog, Words to the Wise, at the Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee, has a post about the errors in notes sent home by schoolteachers. A factory that produces hundreds of cars will turn out some that are faulty. A hospital that treats hundreds of patients will harm a number of them — there is even a word for it, iatrogenic, meaning the unintentional introduction of a disease or symptom by a physician’s treatment.

It falls to the particular responsibility of the copy desk to hold the number of errors to an irreducible minimum, and I have spent the past decade hiring the smartest people I could find to perform that test. (Yes, there is a bias toward intelligence in hiring for the copy desk.) When we let something slip past into print, I wince as much as any reader, and I have contributed a full share of mistakes to the total. But that statement about no longer reading the paper because of all the errors could stand some examination.

First, I have on file the in-house newsletters about writing and editing produced at The Sun since 1970, and the same damn mistakes keep cropping up with monotonous regularity: the same slips in grammar and usage, the same casualness about the names of persons and places. And while I see things I don’t like every time I open up the paper, I have serious doubts that a rigorous sampling would disclose that the error rate is substantially up over the past 37 years. The Sun, particularly in comparison with other daily newspapers, some of which have ill-advisedly neutered their copy-editing operations, is remarkably clean.

Second, some of the errors that readers complain about are not, in fact errors at all. There are people who have been taught that none can be used only as a singular, which the practice of the language since the time of Chaucer shows that it can be singular or plural, depending on context. Aha!-gotcha! letters and e-mails about the violation of some treasured superstition or shibboleth are a recurring phenomenon.

(I omit the complaints about articles that present facts with which the reader disagrees or would prefer not to see — that’s a separate area.)

But yes, we do err, and no one regrets that more than I do.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:36 PM | | Comments (4)
        

Comments

Spelling and usage irregularities are OK with me as long as the story is factually correct. Please keep up the good work. As far as folks not wanting to hear the truth well that is one of the big problems with todays United States.

When I went from editing at a daily newspaper to editing at a textbook publisher, I realized more than ever the daily wonder of getting a paper published at all! Of course, there are errors in the best publications. What's odd is that taking years to produce a work does not eliminate the chance of errors. I'll never forget that I discovered (or was it the firm's copy editors?) just before press time that one of our authors almost showed up as Normal instead of Norman. And we had all seen it in print dozens of times. At the other end of the spectrum, in my current role of writing proposals, I firmly believe documents reach a point of de-evolution, when they just start getting worse the more they are worked on.

Just wondering: do you agree that the folks at The New York Times could have edited better when they wrote of "new" cardinals being named? After all, I don't ever recall the pope naming old cardinals. (Wait. They're not that young.)

Here is an error for you. I didn't know New York was still in the post-season:

"The winners face the Colorado Rockies in the World Series, beginning on Wednesday in either Boston or New York."

http://www.reuters.com/article/domesticNews/idUSB45944420071021

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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