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The errant hand

By now you may have seen in any number of places that 18,000 copies of the student newspaper at Brigham Young University were withdrawn and destroyed because of an embarrassing error: A photo caption referred to the Council of the Twelve Apostles of the Mormon Church identified them as the Council of the Twelve Apostates.

The explanation is that Apostles was misspelled in the caption; a copy editor ran spell-check, which identified an error and suggested Apostates as a correction, and the copy editor accepted the correction. You will find some interesting comments on this incident in a post on Language Log.

Readers react to blunders of that magnitude by asking how anyone could be so ignorant/careless/stupid. But every copy editor maintains a private roll of shame over just such lapses. We run down the list as we lie awake on still winter nights. The wrong synapse fires, or the hand slips, there’s a momentary distraction, or there is pressure to hurry on deadline — and if you think that it wouldn’t happen to you, then you have never worked on a copy desk, a locale that regularly reinforces humility.

Some practical advice: Spell-checking programs are of great utility. They will flag inconsistent spellings of proper names, or simple typographical errors such as transposed letters that the brain may automatically correct in reading.

But the utility is limited. The spell-checker won’t flag a homonym of the correct word, and it will flag any word correctly spelled that does not happen to be in its electronic word list. And when it finds a word it does not recognize, it will suggest the word with the closest spelling in its word list. This is how the Brigham Young student came to grief.

You should probably never use a correct-all function. That is how a newspaper that preferred African-American to black as an ethnic identification wound up writing about a company whose finances finished “in the African-American.” We think that it was a mistake in using the correct-all function that identified Kunta Kinte in a Sun article as “Chunter Knit.” (Chunter means to mumble or grumble.)

It is, obviously, an irony that a mechanism for correcting errors should turn into the means of creating greater errors. But all copy editors understand that that is merely one aspect of the larger irony of our work; we do indeed fix numerous errors, but sometimes our work is self-defeating. Stay humble.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:55 AM | | Comments (7)


This is a fabulous perspective of this widely spoken about situation.

Thank you.

known, though not widely, as the "Cupertino Effect"

And this is how my school's yearbook came to refer to our president as "Barak Obama."

Sorry for not being completely serious here, but I'm afraid the first paragraph derailed me: The Twelve Apostates gave me the best laugh I've had in a month. By way of thanks, I offer the following ad from my local Pennysaver: "Osculating stand up fan adjustable height white color almost new asking $8." Try not to hyperventilate.

I enjoy McIntyre's perspective. Mistakes are mistakes.

The paper seems to be a hot item on ebay now...

Sports Illustrated ran a brief piece a while ago (I don’t have a proper reference) that highlighted the dangers of “auto-replace.” Apparently, the American Family Association (which runs a news site) set its filters to replace the word ‘gay’ with ‘homosexual.’ So when sprinter Tyson Gay performed well, some interesting headlines and story parts were generated. “Tyson Homosexual won…” and “Homosexual wins time trials…”, or things to that effect. The generation (that we are told have grown up with computers) sometimes needs to be reminded that the computers don’t know what we are thinking, nor what we mean to say.

HR sent an e-mail the other day at work that was supposed to say "You may have already received a form from your manager." But instead it said "You may have already received a form from your anger."

I've also seen this kind of spell-checker mistake referred to as the Cupertino effect. These mistakes are dangerous, but they are a lot of fun sometimes.

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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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