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Sheer incompetence

Many of the comments to this blog are thoughtful, and some are quite amusing. But you may not be seeing them, because people often comment on posts days or even weeks after the posting. I want to be sure that you notice these remarks from a reader named Nenya:

Apropos of absolutely nothing, I just needed to vent:

I'm nearly finished reading ... a book I won't name in case it gets me into trouble. In the acknowledgments section, the author thanks his editors. I can't think why...



alter boys... I have images of little boys running around changing things

mantel [of power]... I hope it was a wood one, and not marble

marine corp... I don't remember if they bothered to even capitalize it... but I want stock!

wretch... as a verb... after looking at a severed head


free reign

Kazan's cache [as a director]... is he HIDING his Academy awards?

plains... for transportation

drips and drabs... I might be wrong here, or it may be regional, but I've never heard anything but "dribs and drabs"

Some of these MAY have been typos, but some, like the "alter boys," were repeated throughout.

These instances are not points about which prescriptivists and descriptivists can argue. These are errors. They may be simple typographical errors — who among us has never hit a wrong key? Or they may be errors of ignorance — dribs and drabs misheard as drips and drabs, cache for cachet. But they are errors.

When errors like this multiply, they do not redound to the credit of the writer, the editor or the publication. They indicate that the writer and editor either do not know their jobs or simply don’t care enough to do them properly. Would you trust a carpenter who couldn’t hammer a nail straight? A doctor who couldn’t accurately take your pulse? A cook who mistook salt for sugar?

For a writer and editor, words and syntax are the tools of the trade, and readers have the right to expect that someone who makes a claim on their time and attention should display basic competence. If readers are distracted by multiplication of silly, amateurish errors of grammar, syntax and usage, it may not matter how compelling your information is or how imaginative your prose style, because you may be taken for a fool.

All you need to do is to pick up a newspaper, a magazine or a book, or to venture online, to see how much shoddy prose is being shoveled at you by publishers, print or electronic, who do not respect you enough to see to it that the texts they put forward have been adequately edited.

I suggest that when you discover that you have put down money for a book written incompetently, or that you have wasted your limited time on some subliterate article, a short, sharp note to the editor or publisher is indicated. If editors and publishers receive enough of them from the paying customers, the need for editing might begin to dawn on them.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:01 AM | | Comments (13)


I've always had trouble with college exams given by professors who can't spell or proofread. Multiple choice questions will have the same letter twice, or the same answer twice.

Sometimes, the spelling and grammar are so distracting that I can't focus on the test.

And these are people with doctorate degrees!

card sharks

"ignorant" - as in "Don't be ignorant." I have responded, "I believe you mean rude. You are the one who is displaying ignorance." If I don't want to get punched in the face, I usually follow Aristotle's advice and use an improperly used word properly in a reply.

A more creative approach was used when Samantha attacked my Thursday Dining@Large post for lacking your high standards, but her short comment was riddled with mistakes. Why you gotta be like that, baby?

I get anxiety over here and feel self-conscious about anything I write, so off I go.

"If editors and publisher receive enough of them from the paying customers, the need for editing might begin to dawn on them."

I wish I shared your hopefulness on this point, but I suspect that many bosses would simply bellow down at the rapidly shrinking editing staff: "Faster! Faster! And stop screwing up so much!"

Which is our problem, not readers'. Absolutely, they should complain about substandard editing.

"And these are people with doctorate degrees!"

Irony, or a good example of the Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation?

Wasn't too hard to find on Google Books.... without giving it away... ahem... give a dog a bone...

Oh, I love this blog! Grammar fascinates me. I am one of those annoying kids who always corrects his friends. I might just start posting here for fun. Please, please correct me if I make mistakes. I love being corrected. After all, that's how one learns! There's no one more irksome than one who likes to correct others, but is too stubborn to be corrected himself. BTW, I am one of those bright teenagers who probably doesn't know all he thinks he knows about the English language. I'm in my first year of university. I'm taking German, so of course I'm learning a lot of silly English rules too, as one does when he studies foreign languages. My biggest language problem is not being able to think of words or phrases I want to use on the spot. This is probably due to me being less than well-read. BTW, the errors in that book are hilarious! Grammar and usage errors strike me funnier than they should. I'm always stifling giggles in German when this kid that sits beside me reads aloud in class. I'm such a geek sometimes! Well, I hope to get to know you all better! Auf Wiedersehen!

@ By the sea: I'd kill for German giggles; mine are in Afrikaans.

It's worth pointing out that these errors don't actually affect the reader's understanding of the text. Sure, you can work to misconstrue the meaning (as in "alter boys" who run around changing things), but the intended meaning is still unambiguous.

Yes, they are indeed errors, but they're not errors of grammar or syntax. They're only errors because English spelling is just a disaster.

Point away. Yes, they are not errors of grammar or syntax, but they are still errors, and they still irritate knowledgeable readers. That they rise from vagaries in English spelling is beside the point. It's possible to make errors in French because of the arbitrary and irrational assignment of gender to inanimate objects, but those, too, are errors. People who write professionally are supposed to know their business.

TT, you are correct :)

Mr. McIntyre, I love your blog. And yes, the errors throughout the book were incredibly distracting and irritating. I ended up keeping a notepad with the book so I could write them down. They got me with a double-whammy, too, right before the end: "borne of a time," and "right of passage."

The gentleman who loaned me the book in the first place said it was ok if I want to burn it. I wouldn't ever do such a thing, but I appreciated the sentiment.

Thank you.

Beware, all, "The Artful Edit" by Susan Bell, which purports to be an argument for being one's own editor, but, as it turns out, is a dire warning against such a thing. Spelling errors, mangled cliches, and broken sentences abound--all very painful.

To the charge of late-posting miscreant, I plead guilty.

Somehow, and I am completely in a fog as to how, I get too busy to keep up with blogs on a daily basis.

When I realize this, I put all of the apparently important things aside and go back to the first unread post in my blog-reader.

There was a time when I thought my comments were merely venting into the atmosphere, much in the way I think my own erudite, but never lacking for detail, blog posts to, my blog, do.

The thought struck me that I am not alone in catching up on favored blogs. I suggest, based on the dates of many comments to blogs, that many people skitter and shoot about, reading, thinking, and responding to the blogger and to fellow commenters.

I suspect that this similar to TIVO. My machine gathers what I want see according to my instructions, and I view the material when it is convenient for me, like when my wife is not at home to look over my shoulder and remind me of some worthwhile activity that I am neglecting by wasting my time shouting through my fingers into the ether.

Who knows. One day, I might be immortalized by having my belated thoughts put on display at a future date for all to see and consider. Yes, I believe dreams can come true.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less." -- Lewis Carroll

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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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