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

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The little things that count

My eminent colleague David Sullivan of the Philadelphia Inquirer writes on his blog, That’s the Press, Baby, that as the “reader-feedback editor for corrections and clarifications” he hears what the readers dislike, and what they dislike most of all is small errors of fact.

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?


  1. --Well, yes, "Carmen" is a French opera, but then, it's set in Spain. Does that make the Bertolli ad more silly or more reasonable?

    --Thank you, thank you, for pointing out the margin-of-error problem. In the final days of the Brown-Coakley Senate race, our public radio newscasters kept saying things like "Brown has a slight lead, 51-48, which is within the margin of error for this poll." Well, duh -- then it isn't a lead, is it?

  2. At what point does common usage allow errors to no longer be errors?
    One of the many that I always notice is 12 PM!
    After decades of holding the (time) line on 12 Midnight and 12 Noon and I so close to giving in to the ignornat masses as I now know of no one else in my everyday life who even cares! If I do cave in I will use 12 PM for 12 Noon as once time passes 12 Noon it is 12:00.00001 PM - same argument for 12 AM for 12 Midnight. But - I just not quite ready to join the masses! Really - 12n or 12m is easy to do!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

  3. I did reader surveys in a previous job and I know a little about polling, surveys and statistics. I see many online news sites doing "polls" where they ask readers to give their opinion on some issue, then tout the results as meaningful. Self-selected responses are worthless, and these types of "polls" are easily gamed.

  4. A local woman here on the Eastern Shore regularly advertises her classes in basket weaving. They are held on the third Sunday of each month beginning at "12 AM".

  5. "One does wonder why people strain at small factual errors in journalism when they are prepared to swallow whoppers."

    Well, that's a really interesting question, worthy of at least a post of its own. I think there's a relationship between the two. I suspect that readers are increasingly unclear about what sources they can trust to provide factual information (newspaper journalism? online journalism? online "journalism?" TV news? And if so, what about openly biased outlets like Fox and MSNBC?). Small errors of fact only increase one's sense that the newspaper is not reliable.

    For some, the next step - perhaps more of a leap than a step - is to conclude that all alleged facts are suspect, biased, or somehow untrustworthy. They give up, essentially, on rational judgment informed by evidence. It no longer appears to be an effective tool. So they are then open to believing ridiculous conspiracy theories and the like, particularly if the loony idea reinforces their own world view. Try to debunk the looniness, and you find that facts are not convincing; not even believed. In a world where truth can only be found in scare quotes, what else can we expect?

  6. Patricia the TerseFebruary 3, 2010 at 5:50 PM

    "The Good Wife" isn't about lawyers - it's about sex, because nearly everything on television, including the gnus, is.And I wish she'd cut her hair - so unprofessional. The pasta commercial isn't any sillier than anything else Mad Avenue produces - although I do like the Bach Cello Suite for some automobile or other. At least they don't yell at you, and there are no nasty shrieking children in it.

  7. That Bertolli commercial selling Italian food with an aria from a French opera set in Spain has been driving me bats for some time now. I'm glad I'm not the only one.

  8. She dislikes the journalistic convention of putting attribution — “so-and-so said — at the end of a sentence rather than the beginning.

    That would be American journalistic convention. In the UK we do the reader the courtesy of saying who is speaking first, before we reveal what is said, this letting readers put the words in context right away instead of making them wait.

  9. Most copy editors will naturally be sensitive to anything (even outside of text) that doesn't quite "fit." But tunes from Carmen have been the basis of parody songs for decades (e.g., "Toreador, don't spit upon the floor"; the musical version of Hamlet put on by the Gilligan's Island castaways). This bothers me no more than did the use of an instrumental passage from Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" in KFC commercials last year - amusing, nothing more. As the holder of a Master of Music degree from a Big 10 university, I say: Relax.

  10. Perhaps I should have been more explicit about the Bertolli commercial. Its point is that the prepared foods are as authentic and high-quality as those in restaurants run by Italian chefs. Using music from a French opera set in Spain does not suggest authenticity. And though my degree from a Big 10 university is in English rather than music, I have the impression that there are ample choices from Italian opera available. The Barber of Seville overture running through Bugs Bunny's "What's Opera, Doc?" cartoon, for example. Not that that rises to the sophistication of Gilligan's Island.

  11. When is a mistake not a mistake? On one episode of "The Wire," character Lester Freeman referred to a "limited liability corporation" when he meant "limited liability company." Since this is such a common error, perhaps, in the context of the dramatic dialogue, it was not a mistake at all.