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[Sic] transit and other matters

The Abbeville Manual of Style blog at Abbeville Press continues its mock guerrilla war with The Chicago Manual of Style, this time over the use of [sic] to indicate that an error in the text was there originally, not inserted by the writer or editor quoting the text.

While its use may be indispensable in formal academic writing, where concern about texts is obsessive, You Don’t Say sides with Abbeville in suggesting that you should avoid it elsewhere, because it always looks snotty. What “[sic]” says to the reader is something like “I will condescend to quote this grotty little wretch, but I will also take the trouble to point the finger at all the shabby marks of his inadequate education so that you can share in my contempt for him and sense of superiority about myself.”

That is why at The Baltimore Sun we do not insert [sic] into direct quotation of speakers or texts. If they are wrong and you notice it, you can enjoy your sense of superiority quietly and privately, as one ought.

On to other things.

The apostrophe brouhaha

The Greeks gave us the apostrophe, and we have been having trouble with it ever since. Most recently, the city of Birmingham in England decided to drop the apostrophe from officially listed place names. The horror, the horror. This Associated Press story will summarize the chorus of harrumphing that ensured.

Barbara Wallraff points out that that has been the policy for years of the U.S. board that establishes official place names. Such boards can establish what appears on road and street signs, but they have little or no effect on what people actually do. The tendency in English follows a familiar pattern: Over time, place names tend to lose apostrophes, except when they do not. Local practice can and does vary widely, which is why I am not stepping into the sterile Fells Point/Fells’ Point controversy ever again. Learn to tolerate a little ambiguity, people.

If you wish to become more fully informed, here’s an academic paper on the ragged history of this punctuation mark.


No doubt some of you are sick of the back-and-forth over Wikipedia. I am increasingly wiki-weary myself — yesterday I had to give the formal Wikipedia caution to my copy-editing students, who didn’t look half as frightened as I would have liked. But if there are a few of you who would like some actual information beyond the theological reflections of Wikipedia’s adherents — that is, a little more light and a little less heat — look here:.

Britain’s Independent has published a thoughtful article on the matter of who is writing for Wikipedia and who is editing it.

Mike Pope has kindly written about, where programmers share information. Jeff Atwood, who is involved in the wiki on that site at which programmers post their questions and sort out answers, has written a perceptive essay at on the question of authorship in a wiki environment.

No Wikipedia entries were consulted in the writing of this post.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:58 AM | | Comments (9)


"I had to give the formal Wikipedia caution to my copy-editing students, who didn’t look half as frightened as I would have liked."

Did you tell them that God kills a kitten every time a journalist cites Wikipedia? (A paraphrase courtesy of Grouchy Prof himself, which I enjoyed despite the fact that he was mocking it.)

Careful hanging out with those programmers. They make even copy editors seem normal.

I had never even considered the down side of using [sic] but you've made a cogent argument in the name of courtesy. My first thought however, was that The Baltimore Sun commits enough errors without having to take credit for others' errors. I always assumed that mistakes in quotations were typos or misprints or misquotes. Now you're telling me that any errors inside quotation marks can be attributed to the person who was quoted. What a clever way to diminish the paper's error rate while taking the high road. :)

Laura Lee displays that the high road is the road less traveled, clearly, and she didn't even use [sic] to do it.

I'm with Laura Lee on this [sic] business. I have come across some errors in the Sun that have been in the Did these people finish High School? category. Y'all need to go back to using [sic].

Wiki-warning: This one is about Wikipedia.

I am only just coming up to date with what Androcass has to say. He has a more recent post

that is worthreading in full. It concludes thus:

"So when a defender writes, 'Wikipedia is not a primary source, not a secondary source and again does not claim to be any of these,' that is clearly untrue. Wikipedia is sold as this transcendent thing that elevates hoi polloi over experts, and claims that transparency is somehow better than accuracy. What this does is elevate data over information, and, frankly, what I'm looking for in a reference work is information."

Regarding the Associated Press story on the non-use of apostrophes by the City of Birmingham, I always thought that the Queens English was how they spoke in a certain borough of New York City.

My parents lived for a little while in a town called Scottsbluff (named after a man by the last name of Scott). I understand that the lack of an apostrophe is pretty standard in American place names, but I'm more troubled by the lack of a space.

If you think that's bad, you should get to know the average German, who actually learns English in school. For about 10 years already more and more people start to use more and more anglicism, and so they also start using more apostrophes too. You must know, apostrophes are barely used in written German, actually there're not really foreseen. Drum roll... what I'm aiming for is, people here started messing up their own language by now often writing CD's, Foto's, and other plurals with apostrophe and as ending for genetive. The former is in both languages a fatal error, so guess what, that's why we call it "idiots' apostrophe". The latter is not acceptable in German, many use it anyway, esp. because they think it's hip or something. It only gets worse when these people take a keyboard and type such rubbish, they very, very often use french accents, instead of the '.

Best regards from Germany

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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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