John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and random topics. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. The original site,, at, and now at

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Is nonlife threatened?

From The Baltimore Sun: The woman was being treated at the station for nonlife-threatening injuries and was expected to be taken to a local hospital, according to an MTA spokeswoman [emphasis added].

The woman, this sentence tells me, has injuries that are threatening nonlife. That, of course, is nonsense, and a reader would have to be thicker than a plank to understand the phrase as other than non-life-threatening injuries, with non modifying life-threatening. Still, it’s an awkward-looking construction, and I think I know where it comes from.

The Associated Press Stylebook says that the prefix non is generally attached without a hyphen. So a copy editor who applies “rules” without thinking will make sure that the reader gets nonlife-threatening.

But the AP says also to use a hyphen to avoid “awkward constructions.”

That would require judgment.

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.