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 jemcintyre@gmail.com, 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

Yesterday I quoted Jan Freeman’s caution that errors involving homonyms are often merely errors of spelling, rather than the result of ignorance or defective education. A writer certainly knows the difference of meaning between then and than, she says, and the substitution of one for the other is a mistake in spelling.

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.

13 comments:

  1. I worked with an excellent copy editor who, while rushing, typed "convicted of" instead of "accused of" in a cutline about a federal judge. Several months later she was on a witness stand testifying about her error.

    That happened in 1980 or so, before I'd even gone to work at that newspaper. And still I remember hearing the tale because any copy editor can make such a mistake. If anything, as workloads grow while staffs shrink, we can expect to see more of this.

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  2. I'm glad that I'm not the only copy editor who still thinks about a past error at 4 a.m.

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  3. Where does substituting "should of" for "should've" fit into the conversation? That's one that drives me crazy.

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  4. "the substitution of one for the other is a mistake is spelling."

    Is this a mechanical error? BTW, I've really enjoyed this blog since I found it.

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  5. My error of substitution. Not deliberate.

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  6. How about errors of arrogance? Once, back when I knew everything, I hastily changed "orange county prison uniform" to "Orange County prison uniform." (It was actually an orange uniform from a Los Angeles County prison.) Made a good reporter look stupid and made readers scratch their heads.

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  7. The gravest sin in copy editing is to introduce an error where none previously existed. Arrogance can certainly be a major contributing factor.

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  8. A couple days ago there was a prime example of a "hard word" typo in gigantic type on the cover of my school newspaper (the same one that recently printed a caption that read "Quorum of the Twelve Apostates" rather than "Quorum of the Twelve Apostles"). In roughly 120 point type it read "Potter Pandamonium."

    I'm also prone to substituting homophones and other closely related words when I'm typing. Usually I catch them as they come out, but occasionally one slips through.

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  9. Dave is so right about "errors of arrogance." A couple of years ago I changed the industry in which I work, and wasn't accustomed to some of its language. I quickly learned to either keep the pen away on the first pass or sit on my hands, flag my questions, ask people, put it aside and go through again with fresh eyes. I understand the terms now, but could have introduced colossal blunders if I hadn't recognized my smarty-pants tendency.

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  10. When meaning to type "Chris," I often type the name as "Christ." That's quite a promotion for the intended subject!

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  11. Quirky, I did something similar once, inserting an h into the name of Gov. Crist of Florida.

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  12. I had author tell me repeatedly that one of his colleagues worked at the John Hardy VA Hospital in Florida, but I could find only a James A. Haley Veterans Hospital when I tried to verify the name. Turns out my author was channeling a local restaurant (John Hardy's B-B-Q)!

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  13. Then there's the "for God's sake, Johnny, don't break anything" error, in which -- as if you were a kid standing in a glass trinket shop -- you write the very words you would know, if asked, to be the worst possible offense against accuracy. My worst: In writing a cutline on a story about controversial actions by the Nation of Islam, I typed "the Nation of Israel"

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