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you may have seen in any number of places that 18,000 copies of the student newspaper at Brigham Young University were withdrawn and destroyed because of an embarrassing error: A photo caption referred to the Council of the Twelve Apostles of the Mormon Church identified them as the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