John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
The substitution error
Responding on Facebook to that post, Mike Pope called attention to a post on his blog about the categories of typos, which he lists as mechanical, language mastery, hard words, creative, and due diligence. I encourage you to follow the link to the post for his explanation of them.
Apart from the purely mechanical errors — I am a vile typist — a particularly vexatious typographical error to which I am prone is one that Mr. Pope does not specifically address. Writing earlier this week at Regret the Error about plagiarism, I got Chris Anderson’s name right on first reference and subsequently transformed it to Curt Anderson. A sharp-eyed reader who noticed the errors suggested that Curt Anderson’s name may have been lurking in my head because he is a member of the Maryland House of Delegates.
This substitution error, to give it a name, results when the wrong synapse fires and inserts in the text a more familiar name or common noun — not necessarily a homonym. Early in my career, for reasons I myself could not explain, I wrote mayor in a headline that should have said sheriff. The slot editor didn’t catch it either, and the paper had to run a correction the next day.* Such an error is particularly treacherous because the wrong word, being familiar, will look right and will not, usually, be flagged in spell-check.
When I tell you that everyone needs an editor, I mean everyone. I am just as fallible as you are, and, like other bloggers, I am working without a net here. The only thing you can do is to educate yourself in the kinds of error to which you are prone, or which the writers whose work you edit are prone, and to remain vigilant.
*That was in 1980. These are things that copy editors reflect on lying awake at four o’clock in the morning.