« Sweating the small stuff | Main | Get out your thumbs »

Major and minor

In my own modest way, I chimed in to support Jan Freeman’s blog post pointing out that it’s/its mistakes and similar slips are commonly errors of spelling, not errors of knowledge or thought.

You can figure out what ensued, right? The first comment surmised that I am ignorant of “what the kids have to say today on the internet.” Kids. Then “I want very much to experience all my errors as moral failings and encourage others to do likewise!” Someone, evidently British, imagined that I was slandering Sir Thomas Browne. And somebody quoted bloodthirsty Lynne Truss, that people who confuse it’s and its “deserve to be struck by lightening, [sic] hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.”*

After your deep cleansing breath, please consider what I was actually saying. Neither Jan Freeman nor I suggested that these slips were not errors or that anything goes. We said that they are minor errors, not major ones. As minor errors, they look sloppy, and they annoy some readers—usually the readers whose allegiance you want. Deidre Edgar of the Los Angeles Times points out in an article on complaints from readers how irritating these minor flaws can be, how distracting. And I, a copy editor for more than three decades, have been employed to clean up texts for publication.

What the Trussites, as well as some of my colleagues on copy desks, overlook is that exclusive focus on these minor errors, granting them disproportionate weight, allows major errors free passage. It is possible for a text to be grammatically impeccable, orthographically correct, observant of every jot and tittle of AP style, and still be opaque, false, or paralytically boring.

Taking the big key from the desk, I open the heavy wooden door and descend the cold, damp stone steps to the vault, to hoist up once more a classic example of what focus on the minor to the exclusion of the major can produce. This sentence, the opening sentence of an article, appeared in this form in The Baltimore Sun:

Women’s rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday took the first step toward appealing a ruling that overturned a landmark law denying city liquor licenses to private clubs that discriminate.

You’ll observe that, apart from the journalistic inability to place the adverb of time where it belongs in ordinary English syntax, this sentence is grammatical. It is factually accurate. And it is an offense to the reader. Compared to this, an it’s/its slip looks like the minor error it in fact is.


*Those of you who are unaware of how thoroughly Ms. Truss has been discredited would do well to read Louis Menand’s devastating New Yorker review of her best-seller.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:44 AM | | Comments (6)


No arguments here, but I still can't resist the irony of your saying "an" instead of "and" in the fourth paragraph.

Seems like an opportunity to rummage around in the Language Cites cupboard and find a few relevant thots:

"A writer who fixes too much attention on the correctness of his punctuation, or a reader who does the same, is missing the point: the job of text is to communicate, not satisfy pedantic rule makers." -- Michael Quinion

"Perfect grammar—whether written or spoken—never solves a problem (except the problem of imperfect grammar). It doesn't make a person more creative or a better thinker. It can't turn a bad idea into a good one, or an unclear thought into a clear one. It doesn't guarantee that we will be understood." -- Stuart Froman

"It appears from the evidence that there was never a golden age in which the rules for the use of the possessive apostrophe in English were clear-cut and known, understood, and followed by most educated people." -- Tom McArthur

"[T]he good news is that you only have to worry about those two things when you write: am I communicating what I want to communicate, and am I communicating only what I want to communicate? You don’t have to worry about rules of punctuation, spelling, grammar, or usage. It’s not that they aren’t useful, and you ignore them at the risk of impairing your communication. I’m just saying keep them in their place: so far as you as a writer are concerned, those things are just possibly helpful heuristics to help you say what you mean to say, and not say what you don’t mean to say." -- Michael Swaine

"The fine (and gross) points of literacy -- spelling, punctuation, grammar -- elude the vast majority of the Internet's users. To believe that J. Random Users will suddenly and en masse learn to spell and punctuate [...] is self-delusion of the first water." -- Cory Doctorow

Well said, John. A forest and trees thing we should all remember.

I enjoyed reading "Eats, Shoots & Leaves", perhaps because I take such writings as guidance, not gospel.

Should the "[sic]" really appear before or after the comma in reference to "iightening" ?

Oh, and did I miss the point? ;-)

An oldie but a goodie: Some of the best reporters I have ever worked with were, like many writers, prone to certain signature mistakes -- the lovely man who never met a homophone he could spell correctly comes to mind -- but knew how to pin down wafflers with great questions and always had engaging ledes. The would-be masters of prose, however, made stories long-winded and unecessarily filled with references to themselves, despite rarely making "minor errors." I know whose copy I prefer, and which reporter is better to work with.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

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
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected