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 email@example.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/.
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
The little things that count
He politely disagrees with my contention that lack of editing leading to slack, ill-organized writing is an equal turn-off to readers. The difference, I think, is that readers who notice the little errors of fact are apt to complain, while readers who are baffled or bored simply stop reading. And subscribing. Perhaps we can argue the point over a pint at the American Copy Editors Society’s national conference in Philadelphia in April.*
Nevertheless, let no one underestimate my own irritation at small errors.
Item: You’ve seen the television ad for Bertolli pasta products in which Italian chefs sing a mock aria protesting the popularity of their competitor? Perhaps you noticed that their mock aria is set to music from Carmen, a French opera.
Item: Last night in the opening moments of The Good Wife, Julianna Margulies referred to “opening arguments” in a trial. Lawyers present opening statements at the beginning of a trial, closing arguments at the conclusion. One would think that a drama about lawyers could master that distinction.
Item: This one is about irritations sure to come. In an election year journalists feverishly publish the results of opinion polls, with little regard to reliability and little skill in interpretation. They write about a candidate who is “leading” when the “lead” is a couple of points, well within the margin of error. They quote results without looking too closely into who sponsored the poll, or what the sample was, or what the questions were, or any of the other elements that might call the conclusions into question. Think I exaggerate? Look at Stinky Journalism’s awards for the top ten dubious polls of the previous year, and brace yourselves for the dubious ones this year. (Thanks to Phillip Blanchard of Testy Copy Editors for pointing this article out.)
Item: A point Mr. Sullivan didn’t go into is that while the customer may always be right, the reader may not. Edward Schumacher-Matos, the ombudsman at the Miami Herald, sent a copy of his newspaper to a veteran teacher, Elaine Kenzel, for inspection. She returned it with 133 errors marked. That should be “errors,” because some of the things she marked as wrong were not. She faulted sentences beginning with and or but. (If that is how she teaches, she is doing her students a disservice.) She dislikes the journalistic convention of putting attribution — “so-and-so said — at the end of a sentence rather than the beginning. Insisting that minor stylistic variations are errors of grammar and usage places her in the ranks of the Legion of Peevers.
Item: Ron Ramsey, the lieutenant governor of Tennessee, said this week, “I don't know whether President Obama is a citizen of the United States or not” — this in the course of explaining why he thinks that the president’s citizenship should not be a campaign issue. While it is not surprising to find a candidate for public office planting himself squarely on both sides of an issue, it continues to astonish that candidates of a major party continue to utter this canard. Surely the president has provided enough grounds for disagreement on policies and proposals to make it unnecessary to resort to the birthers’ fantasies.
One does wonder why people strain at small factual errors in journalism when they are prepared to swallow whoppers.
*By the way, have you registered yet for the ACES conference? And if not, why not?