A devoted reader, Laura DiIonno, recently wrote to me about her frustration with typos, and has given me permission to reprint her letter here.
Q: Where Have All the Copy Editors Gone?
by Laura DiIonno
(lauradiio AT yahoo DOT com)
I just discovered your blog and am enjoying reading through the entries. I'm hoping you're an appropriate person to send this query to. (It sounds like you are.)
In the past several years I've noticed an annoying number of spelling and grammatical mistakes in books. Some examples from books I've recently read:
- cage for cadge (as in "she caged a cookie")
- administer to the sick
- hone in on
- compliment for complement
- lay/laid turned into a total mishmash: "I lay the book down on the table, then walked over and laid on the couch."
- intercranial (communication between two telepaths maybe?)
- sigma cum laude
- meeting out justice
I don't remember this kind of sloppiness in books from when I was younger, and I'm starting to find it really obnoxious.
I just finished a book where just about every time the protagonist is thinking about something that happened in the past, the author uses the simple past tense of the verb instead of the past perfect: "She remembered a conversation she had with him six or seven years ago," instead of "a conversation she had had with him." Every time I ran across that while I was reading, I found myself stumbling over the sentence, in search of the lost "had."
(Strangely enough, I keep running into the opposite problem in my work as a conference/webcast transcriber. A recent trend seems to be using the past perfect when the simple past tense is called for: Instead of, "We talked yesterday about this particular problem," it's now in vogue to say, "We had talked yesterday about this particular problem." And, by the way, these are all supposedly well-educated people.)
All the errors I listed above are from books by different writers, put out by different publishers. Nobody in the book business seems to be paying much attention to the language these days. Are there such things as copy editors anymore? If so, are they learning good English usage in school anymore? Is there anything anyone can do to stop the carnage?
I'm hoping you'll tackle this subject in one of your pieces. I can't think that I'm the only reader bothered by it (but maybe I am).
A: I sympathize, as typos can drive me up a wall too. I think there are a few points to be made in response.
The first is that the above list of typos seems to me to be easily divisible into two categories: (1) Those that can be caught by a computerized Spell Checker, and (2) Those that can't. Much of the list above would not be caught by a spell checker. For example, both "cage" and "cadge" are words; and a lot of dictionaries recognize both "discernable" and "discernible" as technically correct. Ditto for "rarified," which is an acceptable alternate spelling of "rarefied." And "deducted" is officially a word, even though in the context above the writer probably meant "deduced."
A spell checker also would not check "sigma cum laude," as all of those words (albeit Latin) are properly spelled, even if the writer meant to say "summa cum laude"; "administer to the sick" is also tricky, in that "admininster" is a word, and I can see how it could be used rightly in this phrase ("minister to the sick" connotes to me a kindly nurse taking care of someone ill; "administering to the sick" connotes to me taking care of an ill person's needs on a more transactional basis, perhaps in a hospital setting).
But there are some abominations here that SHOULD be caught by a spell checker, including "transversing" and "dissention."
So what does all this mean for writers?
FIRST--ALWAYS use a spell checker, and even use the grammar checker, before you submit your final manuscript. I know the grammar checker is cumbersome and ridiculous sometimes, but it CAN help point to possibly problematic sections.
SECOND--NEVER rely on a spell checker to catch everything, especially homonyms and idioms. Get a friend or loved one to read your ARC before you submit absolutely final corrections. You'll be amazed at how much s/he finds.
Now, from the publisher's point of view, I can assure you that we still DO hire proofreaders. The reason is pretty simple: The more times an author goes over a manuscript (and, prior to being printed, some authors go over a manuscript half a dozen times or more), the more he or she is focused on fixing "big picture" things like red herrings, proper placement of clues, and inconsistencies. The same is true, sadly, for editors. By my second or third time through a manuscript, I am focusing on getting the big details right, and I may miss things like the above.
A proofreader brings a fresh set of eyes to the project and is a sort of tabula rasa, so the theory is that s/he will find all those things that the rest of us have overlooked. But this is a tall order for one person, and mistakes are bound to slip by. There is a well-documented tendency for the human brain to automatically "fix" mistakes it sees in writing, which can cause even the most experienced proofreader to miss a typo or misspelling. So...it does happen, and it's unfortunate.
I think for this reason I personally put typos into two categories: the forgivable and the unforgivable. The forgivable are things like a lack of closing quotation mark, a missing period, the occasional misspelled word that is clearly the result of an oversight, as opposed to incompetence. The unforgivable are situations (as above) where neither the writer nor the copy editor/proofreader knows the difference between lie and lain, or who and whom, etc.
Also keep in mind that proofreaders are often the lowest-paid people in the industry; it is an entry-level job, and a huge portion of it is freelanced out. All houses have favored proofreaders/copyeditors who have a track record of reliability, but even those wonderful folks can slip up occasionally.
What does drive me crazy, though, are factual errors that can easily be caught with even the most basic of research. For instance, I just read a book that referred to Dickens' famous character Miss Havisham, from Great Expectations. The author referred to her as "Miss Haversham," which made me shudder. This is much more than a typo--it's a true mistake, not an oversight based on a tired pair of eyes reading over page proof. And I really feel that anyone who aspires to be a novelist should have read Great Expectations.
As far as the teaching of grammar in schools, that is a subject far beyond Mysterious Matters. I do know that one of my children (while in college) mentioned her instructor's philosophy of grading papers based on their "ideas" rather than how carefully they were written. So perhaps that is part of the problem.
I can assure you, though, that publishers remain committed to publishing error-free and typo-free books and that, even in this era of belt-tightening, we are not looking to save money by simply eliminating the proofreading stage.