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, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Saturday, January 16, 2010

You can always blame the customer

Andrew Alexander, the ombudsman for The Washington Post, once more takes on the thankless task of explaining to readers why the number of irritating errors has increased:

When it comes to typos and syntax, retired English teachers and armchair grammarians delight in playing "Gotcha!" with The Post. They are regular (and often good-natured) correspondents, pointing out everything from misplaced modifiers to homonym errors.

In recent months, they've been joined by less genial readers who complain that increased copy-editing errors have become annoying and are damaging The Post's credibility.

Everything would be swell if it weren’t for those damn readers.

Here are some of the things the armchair grammarians and their recent recruits are whingeing about:

The errors are typically small but unremitting. A story about an Arlington National Cemetery burial described a soldier wearing “shiny black boats” (instead of boots). An item about an auto accident involving NBC newsman Tom Brokaw said he had “slammed on the beaks” (brakes). A listing of unemployment rates in foreign countries included “Cypress” (Cyprus). In a Sports story, the “principles” (principals) attended a dinner celebrating the hiring of Redskins coach Mike Shanahan.

Reasons, Mr. Alexander concedes, include the reduction in the number of copy editors at the paper, from seventy-five to forty-three over a three-year span, and the requirement for the remnant to concentrate on “search-engine optimization.” The latter is formatting and tailoring articles to attract the attention of Google and thus additional readers.

Mr. Alexander has more faith than I do about the possibility that new grammar-check software will help ⎯ that Cypress for Cyprus looks like a spell-check-induced error, or Cupertino, to me.*

The increase in errors that make the writer, and the publication, look stupid comes in part from the current belief that getting it fast counts more than getting it right, and the corollary that you can eliminate copy editors, or assign them more and more non-editing duties, because nobody cares about quality, except maybe a few cranky retired English teachers.

Just refer the fusspots to the ombudsman and let the search-engine optimization roll.

*Or maybe, as at the Star Tribune, the writers will spontaneously start using the spell-checker and learn to distinguish homonyms.


  1. Um, don't the misused homonyms *deoptimize* the search engines? Seems to me if someone's searching for stories about Cyprus and the story spells it Cypress, that story is not going to come up in the search.

  2. It is more than merely the "current belief" that a few typo's and other niceties of grammar are the acceptable price to be paid for getting the news out first and otherwise correct. That "belief" is a reality that has been true forever.

    The difference today is the squeezed timeframe between when the reporter first sees their words in text and when the reader does. A reader more often than not without ink stained fingers.

    That said, the more substantial reports and actual stories which must be allowed more editing time for fact checking than the late breaking warrant being held to a higher standard.


    PS: The examples ofered above are editing errors just as much as they were writing errors.

  3. Some comments from Facebook:

    Linda Felaco: So apparently the problem is not with the editing or lack thereof but with those fusspot readers who, after finding the search-optimized story, persist in reading the damn thing and finding it wanting. Now how do we get them to just click the link and read the ads only?

    Ben Welter: At ACES last spring, I was shocked to learn that a copy editor at a midsize paper was devoting 30 minutes of her shift to rewriting every local hed for SEO -- without any evidence that the presumed increase in traffic had measurable impact on revenue at her paper.

    Pat Myers: fyi, the mistakes noted above don't happen to have anything to do with misleading spellcheck prompts or corrections, because The Post's current system doesn't provide them. It's clearly the result of what happens when you're working too fast and/or without enough focus. (I don't think any of the ones cited above are a result of ignorance or lack of copy editing knowledge, which is a different problem.

    I think that we are all familiar with inadvertently typing homonyms in our own writing – it’s something our brains are all too williing to let us do. The problem is that the essential backstop on that – to have someone read over your writing, or at least to have the time and focus to read over your own writing – has been thrown away, both by staff reductions and by a shift in priorities toward speed and toward efforts to have the story recognized by automated search engine software.

    Linda Felaco: (I've just sent the following message to Mr. Alexander. I'll let you know if I get a response)

    I'm neither a "retired English teacher" nor an "armchair grammarian," so I guess I must count myself among the "less genial readers" who have been complaining about increased copy-editing errors. But why should readers be expected to be "genial" about the changes that have taken place in the Post that have reduced its quality? For years, Post readers could expect a certain level of editing that is no longer in evidence, dropped according to your January 17 column, in favor of “search-engine optimization.” Apparently, we are now expected just to click those links like rats seeking a “reward” and read no further. How “ungenial” of us to actually read the stories and find them wanting. I suggest that if the Post wishes to retain the educated, well-read readership that justifies higher advertising rates, that it rehire a few of those downsized copy editors and get them busy editing copy rather than “optimizing” it.

    Bill Glauber: Don't forget the writers. Typos begin at the source. We need to give our copy that extra read.

    Gary Kirchherr: "Everything from misplaced modifiers to homonym errors." Ugh. How appropriate that the absence of copy editors is apparent even in this column.

  4. SEO should not be blamed for shoddy copy editing. Good SEO is closer to the craft of copy editing than other tasks copy editors have taken on in previous decades and is no more a threat to good copy editing than writing a headline to fit a count would be.

    I'm wondering if there's a market for a homonymchecker.

  5. John, i created a new term for incorrect spellages (sic) in newspapers and especially on TV screens over at CNN, etc, and I call them "crash possums" after one of our favorite coinages from the team at TestyCopyEditors -- "crash blossoms" (now taking on a life of its own, thanks to the good eye of Nessie3 in Sapporo). The Urban Dictionary defines crash possums as: (n.) -- words that are spelled incorrrectly, for all the world to see, on TV broadcasts at CNN and other networks and in newspapers too.

    "I've seen some real bloopers and howlers on CNN recently, where the headline writer spelled "competing" as "competiting" and things like that. Happens almost every day on my TV screen, all the networks do it. Don't they have copyeditors? I call them 'crash possums' because they remind me of dead possums on rural roads and highways."

    They are called CRASH POSSUMS because they arrive on our TV screens "dead on arrival" like possums that were run over on a rural road or highway....

    This is what we have spotted on CNN recently:

    Sliver lining in AGW

    Competiting for gold

    Harbey Kushner (they meant to type Harvey Kushner)

    Marshall law lifted in Philippines

    A look at who's competiting in Vancouver

  6. I fail to see this issue as "rocket science." Whether the media depends upon Spell Check or live, human editing, the reader has a right to expect that good grammar and proper spelling occur in articles. Grammar and spelling are the vehicles/commodities of writing. We do not tolerate such sloppiness in products of industry (whether in this country or China.) Speed has become a higher priority than accuracy. Go back and re-read Future Shock.

  7. Don't know who is writing cutlines for the Post -- possibly the photographers' second cousins or a hotel clerk in Pakistan -- but the they have deteriorated. Cutlines, along with headlines, used to give copy editors a chance to shine. A terrific cutline with a terrific photo guaranteed that the accompanying story would be read, at least the first few paragraphs.

    One way to measure the quality of a newspaper used to be to count how many reporters and editors had their feet on their desks. The more that did, the better the publication. They were thinking or preparing to think or recovering from thinking or hung over in a way that made their prose and heds more human.

    Incidentally, my step-son, who has an amazing record for accuracy, does a search for "illion" before sending a story with numbers in it. That way he can stare at each "illion" to ensure he hasn't written million and meant billion, though what the hell, a billion or a million is just a little bit of money these days. A trillion, I heard, is still big and shouldn't be confused with a ten-dollar bill.

  8. Patricia the TerseJanuary 18, 2010 at 5:30 PM

    What is a "cupertino?"

  9. I wrote in a previous comment that cutlines and headlines used to give copy editors a chance to shine. I should have written, "a chance to shine, albeit anonymously."

  10. Ode to a Spell Checker
    I have a spelling checker
    I disk covered four my PC.
    It plane lee marks four my revue
    Miss steaks aye can knot see.

    Google "ode to spell checker" to see the rest...

  11. This just in from WaPo ombudsman Andy Alexander in response to my response to his column: "I think it's fine for upset readers to be 'ungenial.' They're paying for the Post after all."