The wonders of blunders

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Copy editors are some of the most underappreciated employees at most publications, partially because their job is basically to be unnoticeable. They correct grammar and mistakes in copy so (hopefully) readers can glide easily through stories without crashing into a wall. They are the reader’s last defense.

They get noticed, though, when there’s a mistake, such as a misspelling in a headline … especially if it happens to be on the front page of a section.

I love Chicag ... oh ... Green Bay Press-Gazette (Photo Credit: waplross.blogspot.com).

I love Chicag … oh … Green Bay Press-Gazette (Photo Credit: waplross.blogspot.com).

Try saying this headline five times fast. Image from aroundtheinterwebs.com.

Try saying this headline five times fast. Image from aroundtheinterwebs.com.

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Even though we strive for perfection, we’re human and make mistakes—but have you ever wondered why that happens?

At the risk of sounding like I’m defending myself or my colleagues (since apparently that’s all John Brummett and I do … when we’re not recruiting for Satan, that is), one explanation is that of the brain filling in gaps.

And when people like me see the boneheaded errors we’ve made (such as “one the other hand” in my print column last week—ack!), there’s the concussion that follows banging our heads repeatedly on our desks.

A proof after my first read. You'll notice I don't adhere to the stereotype of the red pen. It's easier to make jokes about purple prose if your pen is actually purple.

A proof after my first read. You’ll notice I don’t adhere to the stereotype of the red pen. It’s easier to make jokes about purple prose if your pen is actually purple.

It’s one of the reasons someone other than the writer should review what’s been written, as fresh eyes might catch what our own didn’t. I knew I meant “on the other hand,” so my brain decided that was what was there. Unfortunately, so did the brain of the other editor who read the proof. Spell-check wouldn’t have caught the error, so it was up to me to do that, and I failed.

Often the problem will be an extra word dropped into a sentence that no one notices till it’s actually in print. Other times, it may be a missing small but significant word, such as “not,” which is why we use “innocent” rather than “not guilty” in court stories.

It’s best to keep a sense of humor and be able to laugh about those mistakes that don’t really hurt anybody. Somewhere I believe I still have a copy of the edition of my college newspaper that, in a cutline for a picture of Department of Public Safety officers, just happened to have dropped the “l” in the department’s name. Since their office was across the street from the largest men’s dorm on campus, most of us chose to see the humor in that error. After all, we didn’t mess it up.

Some researchers blame technology and innovations like auto-correct for our having become a bit complacent when it comes to writing.

Poor Grandma ... Image from autocorrectfail.org.

Poor Grandma … Image from autocorrectfail.org.

Of course, it’s things like auto-correct that have spawned so many Internet memes and more than a few websites (and split up God only knows how many couples). And without auto-correct, many office workers would be at least a little more bored while web-surfing on the job.

If you’re like me, though, seeing those squiggles underneath a word you know is spelled correctly, or even worse, the word changed to what the program thinks you meant, drives you crazy, and makes you a bit more careful about what you write (though cursing still ensues if I happen to hit send just as I notice a bad auto-correct).

But all the caution in the world won’t help when your brain decides to have a little fun with you.

Kathryn Schulz explores the wide world of mistakes in her book, Being Wrong, noting that the brain unconsciously fills in gaps for us, and sometimes gets it wrong.

When it comes to writing, that would be one of the reasons we sometimes don’t notice that we’ve repeated a word or used the wrong word, such as “since” rather than “sense.” If we’re lucky, someone else will notice before it gets too far like, say, all over the state.

Nova Scotia Chronicle Herald can't even spell its own name. Image from poynter.org.

Nova Scotia’s Chronicle Herald can’t even spell its own name. Image from poynter.org.

But we’re not always lucky, like the Chronicle Herald in Nova Scotia, which spelled its own name wrong in a headline last year.

You might have seen the viral email about “typoglycemia,” which says Cambridge researchers have found that most people can still read jumbled-up words as long as the first and last letters are in their proper places. Despite the fact that it’s an urban legend/Internet meme, it does show how our brains can help or betray us.

Plus, you have to admit that “typoglycemia” is a pretty good name to give to that garble that we type when we’re tired.

Yuka Igarashi, Granta magazine’s managing editor, calls the brain the original auto-corrector, and notes that urban legend in an August piece on The Guardian’s Mind Your Language blog. She employs that story and Schulz’s work in an effort to show that copy editors have to be abnormal humans in order to do their jobs. (Hey, thanks for giving us license to be Abby Normal!)

Anyone who knows a copy editor can confirm that we can be a weird lot at times, and that if one of us starts talking about misplaced modifiers, it’s best to smile and back away before breakable objects start flying.

And never ask about “whom” or “more than” versus “over” if you value your life.

Stalwart copy editor John McIntyre of The Baltimore Sun models a green eyeshade at the 2000 ACES conference. Not many of us wear them anymore, or bow ties and suspenders either. Image from poynter.org.

Stalwart copy editor John McIntyre of The Baltimore Sun models a green eyeshade at the 2000 ACES conference. Not many of us wear them anymore, or bow ties and suspenders. Image from poynter.org.

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Editors have to constantly battle the brain’s tendency to make us see things that aren’t there or ignore things that are.

Sometimes we may use strategies such as reading stories from the end to fool gray matter into reading every word that’s actually there.

I tend to use the trick I learned in my radio/TV days, reading out loud (which is where my “sounds right” editing rule originated. Thank you, Dr. Jackson-Pitts!).

And if I happen to be having a discussion with myself when someone walks by, I can always say I’m editing. They don’t have to know that I’m fighting with the voices in my head … as long as they can’t hear them, anyway.

But still, mistakes happen, not just to us, but to everyone. Even the Vatican.

Last fall, 6,200 commemorative medallions created to celebrate the papacy of Francis were recalled after it was discovered that the Latin inscription on the medals produced by the Italian State Mint talked of “Lesus” rather than “Jesus.”

Which reminds me of something Jesus said about casting the first stone.

Who gets to say mea culpa for this one? Image from ABC News.

Who gets to say mea culpa for this one? Image from ABC News.

This is what happens when there are no copy editors, Padre. Photo from Getty Images.

This is what happens when there are no copy editors, Padre. Photo from Getty Images.

 

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Now excuse me, please, while I go find a wet noodle with which to flog my traitorous brain, and try to figure out what to apologize for next week. Such a long list …

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