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The burden of omniscience

Last week one of my readers sent a note questioning the placement of a comma in one of these posts, which, she thought, permitted an ambiguous reading of a sentence. I had a look, concluded that the objection was apt, and corrected the passage. I thanked my correspondent, who replied that she hoped I didn’t mind her approaching me on the point directly, without a lot of “flowery preliminaries.”

No, I didn’t.

Some writers are so touchy that accomplishing anything with them requires a forelock-tugging, beggin’-your-pardon-guv’nor approach. They are the ones who want to look over your shoulder during the editing to demand that you justify every last keystroke. You can’t excise so much as a preposition phrase without hearing that they fall upon the thorns of life, they bleed. Spare me.

But I am an editor (and a sloppy typist as well), without pretensions to infallibility. If you spot something wrong or questionable, I’d prefer that you inform me directly and concisely — not that many of you appear to be at all reluctant to play a brisk round of Correct the Copy Editor. I’ve previously quoted a line from one of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries in which Wolfe says that he welcomes corrections “because they relieve me of the burden of omniscience.”

What matters is the text. Is it clear? Is it accurate? Is it grammatical? That’s what you care about most, and that‘s what I care about most. Yes, I will wince when you drop notice of an error in front of me, but the ease of my ego is at best a secondary consideration.

No need to approach on tiptoe. We’re grown-ups here, and I work at being a professional as well.




Posted by John McIntyre at 10:30 AM | | Comments (2)


OK. Since you asked: in the episode titled "What a father dreams of," you wrote "Today, after about three weeks in bottle, they uncapped their first India pale ale, and it was good." My question is: why are your son and his friend in the bottle? Can they get out soon? Or would just deleting "in bottle" fix the dang dangling modifier?

Changed the phrase to make it function adverbially rather than adjectively, which clears up the problem.

Thanks for the comment.

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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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