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One Writer's Ravings:
A Logophile's Blog
for Language Lovers

Born to Correct

In his review of Dan Epstein's Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging '70s (New York Times Book Review, June 6, 2010), Bill Scheft points out a serious factual error that appears on page 38, one of several "chaw-swallowing" blunders Scheft uncovered in the book. "When an author pulls that big a rock that early, you start reading differently," Scheft writes. "We don't want to be copy editors. We'd rather not keep score. But you cannot hit .900 with facts."

That statement hit home — or hit a home run — with me. As a reader, I don't want to be, or have to be, a copyeditor. (The Times prefers copy editor, but I think that's antiquated; if proofreader is closed, copyeditor ought to be too.) But I'm afraid I can't help it, for two reasons. First, I'm continually amazed at how many mistakes I find in all kinds of published writing. As the Canadian novelist and essayist Robertson Davies once observed, "It seems astonishing that so much bad writing should find its way into print when so much good advice is to be had." Second, I can't help it. I was born to correct.

Its a curse, really, a malady I've had to cope with all my life. (If you just gasped at that intentionally erroneous its for it's, you may have the malady too.) Everything I read, I read with one eye searching for information or pleasure and the other on the qui vive for an accident of style. And since I finished writing my book The Accidents of Style, which St. Martin's Press will publish next month, things have only gotten worse. I've always had sensitive radar for verbal gaffes. But now, the simple act of reading or listening to the radio is all too often like having to endure those horrendous squeaks when someone handles Styrofoam (one of my lifelong phobias).

On any given day I'll spot a howler in my local newspaper within minutes of picking it up. Ten minutes of listening to public radio will invariably yield a grisly accident of style, and the Sunday New York Times and Book Review can usually be counted on for a blunder or two. Just this morning, opening my mail, I found three mistakes, licketysplit, in a packet sent to me by my healthcare provider. And — as Dave Barry likes to say, I'm not making this up — most of the books I've read in the past few years have been riddled with errors that the copyeditor should have pounced on.

I could swamp you with examples (because of course I've been documenting them all), but let's just say that the winner of the Blunderful Book Award in my reading so far this year, by ten miles, is A. J. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire magazine who took it upon himself to imbibe the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica and write a book about the experience called The Know-It-All. On page one alone I was appalled to find three rudimentary boners that any professional wordslinger should have learned about in Copyediting 101: dwarves used instead of dwarfs; brought used instead of took (“I brought D. H. Lawrence novels on vacations”); and graduating college instead of graduating from college.

All of which is to say — what? That I'm a freak for having such a thin-skinned verbal sensibility? Perhaps. Or that many of the professional writers and copyeditors out there aren't performing up to snuff? Definitely.

So, now that you've heard my complaint, it's time to ask you about your reading and listening experience. Do you come across more redundancies and errors of usage and style, in print and in speech, than you used to (not use to)? Do you wince at gaffes you hear on radio or television? Do you think periodicals and books are not as well-edited as they used to be? Please let me know what you think — but don't forget to proofread your comments before you submit them!
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