Monday, April 19, 2010

The $18,000 typo

Penguin Group Australia is pulping 7,000 copies of The Pasta Bible cookbook because the recipe for tagliatelle with sardines and prosciutto called for sprinkling the dish with “salt and freshly ground black people.”

How people came to be substituted for pepper was not announced. It is not at all uncommon for the wrong synapse to fire in a writer’s brain, particularly when concentration is momentarily relaxed, substituting the wrong word for the correct word. Some errors are the result of a category called a cupertino, in which the electronic spell-check function does not recognize a typed word and substitutes the one most nearly resembling it in its dictionary file.

Then, of course, comes the embarrassment of the proofreader, who let this mistake slip through his or her hands. Once again, if attention flags even momentarily, the brain is given to pass quickly over words it recognizes. The wrong word correctly spelled is one of the great hazards that editors and proofreaders encounter.

You may snicker, but you too could have committed this error, or overlooked it. So could I. So could anyone. And this inborn propensity to get things wrong, dear ones, is why old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy, stick-in-the-mud, nineteenth-century-industrial-era-production-model editors suspect that the current enthusiasm among cheese-paring corporate types for fewer-touches, sack-editors-and-save-bucks, direct-to-the-reader, nobody-cares-about-accuracy-anyhow publishing may encounter some unanticipated expenses.

Uncle John says, I want YOU

John McIntyre
for the American Copy Editors Society.

Last week, after a five-year absence, I was able to return to a national ACES conference. In Philadelphia I was able to greet old friends, Bill Connolly, Beryl Adcock, and Alex Cruden, whom I have known since the first ACES conference at Chapel Hill in 1997, along with many others; to meet Renee Petrina, Brian White, and Emily Ingram, whom I had only known through blogs and

Twitter; and to introduce my wife, Kathleen Capcara, she of the famed “Except in Hell” remark, to them all. 

Personal gratifications aside, the conference offered considerable substance. Kathy Schenck, who is leaving editing for the business world, presented her workshop on skeptical editing for the last time. Susan Keith of Rutgers described the research she is doing on the global “seismic shift” in how editing is being done. Josh Benton gamely defended his statement “Sometimes the path between the writer and the reader will not have an editor” before a room full of skeptics. Bill Walsh, with whom I have modest but friendly differences on some points of usage, displayed in his “Rules That Aren’t” session how his views have been evolving since I last checked in on him. Doug Ward of Kansas, describing essential skills for editors in the new era, reminded us not to get so involved in technology as to neglect our traditional skills: grammar, usage, spelling, style, fact-checking, curiosity,
vocabulary, attention to detail, ability to negotiate, focusing on the writing

If you thought that the previous paragraph was dense, it merely skimmed a few of the workshops offered. There is no event anywhere, offered by anyone, that offers editors more substance and more useful advice, than the national ACES conference. Moreover, it was deeply heartening to be there.

And people know that. More than three hundred people showed up, many of them, like me, at personal expense. They are the veterans of the War on Editing, determined in the most difficult of times to uphold the worth of the craft, the practice it, to get better at it. They have not surrendered. 

Neither should you. ACES has more than seven hundred members. If you are not one of them, why not? Sign up. The society’s Education Fund offers scholarships to students pursuing a career in editing. The find is now self-sustaining, with contributions to date of $150,000, but it could use more, and your contributions are tax-deductible. On a modest level, you can contribute to the education fund by using GoodSearch for your Internet research, specifying the American Copy Editors Society Education Fund as the beneficiary of the cent or two contributed for each search you perform on the site. 

I have known, worked with, and respected these people for thirteen years. Many of them have stood loyally by me during the vicissitudes of personal and professional life, and their friendship has been a joy. They merit your support. 

Photo credit: Phillip Blanchard