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Friday, August 31, 2007

Printerum est errare

Two recent columns from the NY Times public editor about misspellings and archiving corrections have been really interesting. Or, rather, they've been interesting because they show how difficult it is to talk about error correction as more than a set of anecdotes about particular mistakes. I'm interested in why Hoyt chose to focus on the misspellings as the errors to be concerned about. No doubt, misspellings are embarrassing because they evince carelessness, for they are the errors that readers can identify--and identify with committing. This is only a guess, but I wonder if numerical errors are as common, or even more common. The web site Regret the Error, which collects corrections from newspapers worldwide, finds this type of error so often that there's a whole category for them (Fuzzy numbers, etc.). Numerical errors--or geographical errors, or chronology errors, or there are plenty of error types to fit into a taxonomy of mistakes--may be less obviously galling than spelling errors, so maybe that's why they weren't sexy enough to fit into Hoyt's column.

Jack Shafer responded to both columns: first, he noted a press accuracy survey about the frequency of mistakes in national newspapers--and the relative infrequency of corrections-- and then he wondered if Clark Hoyt may be exaggerating the effect of a Googled Times story on a reputation. Shafer also linked to another critique of Hoyt's piece about misspellings on, where Bill Wyman noted that Hoyt's suggestions concern individuals (write a note of apology to the person whose name you misspelled, etc.) but copy-editing is about systems:
All of which… is why a paper has copy editors, who are supposed to catch errors before they go into the paper. And why it has managers of copy desks, who are supposed to institute procedures to minimize those errors. It's not that hard to send out a list of commonly misspelled names and penalize the editors on the copy desk who don't catch them. Hoyt's coy proposal is to have reporter's have to write letters of apology when they make mistakes. If anyone, the copy editors should have to do that. Actually, the copy chief should, or, even better, the editor of the freakin' paper, who is supposed to make sure his subordinates are doing their jobs well.

Again, this is a management issue. Journalism is hard. Writing is hard, writing for publication is harder, and writing for publication on the level the Times does each day is hardest of all. There aren't a number of tiny little steps you follow to change the world, the way journalism at its best can. There's one big step you have to take: reporting the story, nailing it, and then bringing it back home to have it published in the best possible way. And that last part—-publishing good work in the best possible way—-is the job of the people who usher all that stuff into print, or onto the air.

Hoyt doesn't talk about management issues because … it's hard. Much easier to pull anecdotes from… the person in the bed next to you...

What follows is a jab at Hoyt citing his wife's suggestion for correcting those who err frequently, and it's a little mean-spirited, as some of his commenters point out--but what interests me more is, again, Hoyt's choice of relying on anecdotes in a column about a systematic problem. That is, citing an egregious mistake is probably a good way to draw attention to an issue, but the underlying problem isn't the egregiousness of the single error, it's the repetition of minute errors. And it's harder to write about pinpricks than about big gashes, just as it's harder to fix them.

I think Benjamin Franklin was conscious of this tendency when he wrote a letter to the editor of a rival Philadelphia paper about misspellings and readers' reactions to the mistakes. As Franklin and his friends correct the printer's errors, their conversation turns to funny anecdotes about other mistakes:
To the Publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette.

Printerum est errare.


As your last Paper was reading in some Company where I was present, these Words were taken Notice of in the Article concerning Governor Belcher, [After which his Excellency, with the Gentlemen trading to New-England, died elegantly at Pontack's]. The Word died should doubtless have been dined, Pontack's being a noted Tavern and Eating-house in London for Gentlemen of Condition; but this Omission of the letter (n) in that Word, gave us as much Entertainment as any Part of your Paper. One took the Opportunity of telling us, that in a certain Edition of the Bible, the Printer had, where David says I am fearfully and wonderfully made, omitted the Letter (e) in the last Word, so that it was, I am fearfully and wonderfully mad; which occasion'd an ignorant Preacher, who took that Text, to harangue his Audience for half an hour on the Subject of Spiritual Madness. Another related to us, that when the Company of Stationers in England had the Printing of the Bible in their Hands, the Word (not) was left out in the Seventh Commandment, and the whole Edition was printed off with Thou shalt commit Adultery, instead of Thou shalt not, &c. This material Erratum induc'd the Crown to take the Patent from them which is now held by the King's Printer. The Spectator's Remark upon this Story is, that he doubts many of our modern Gentlemen have this faulty Edition by 'em, and are not made sensible of the Mistake. A Third Person in the Company acquainted us with an unlucky Fault that went through a whole Impression of Common-Prayer-Books; in the Funeral Service, where these Words are, We shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an Eye, &c. the Printer had omitted the (c) in changed, and it read thus, We shall all be hanged, &c.
Upon the whole you came off with the more favourable Censure, because your Paper is most commonly very correct, and yet you were never known to triumph upon it, by publickly ridiculing and exposing the continual Blunders of your Contemporary. Which Observation was concluded by a good old Gentleman in Company, with this general just Remark, That whoever accustoms himself to pass over in Silence the Faults of his Neighbours, shall meet with much better Quarter from the World when he happens to fall into a Mistake himself; for the Satyrical and Censorious, whose Hand is against every Man, shall upon such Occasions have every Man's Hand against him.

What stands out to me in Franklin's letter is how the anecdote is the main constitutive element of the essay that gets repeated over and over again--until the last paragraph, when he wonders about the efficacy of such mean-spiritedness, as though the delight in others' errors produces good conversation, but not necessarily good printing practice.

Hoyt's second column about how errors can be inadvertently preserved and disseminated in newspaper archives reminds me of this quotation from Samuel Johnson: "Nothing but experience could evince the frequency of false information, or enable any man to conceive that so many groundless reports should be propagated, as every man of eminence may hear of himself. Some men relate what they think, as what they know; some men of confused memories and habitual inaccuracy, ascribe to one man what belongs to another; and some talk on, without thought or care. A few men are sufficient to broach falsehoods, which are afterwards innocently diffused by successive relaters."

The afterlife and reproduction of this quotation fascinates me: it's from Johnson's review Joseph Warton's Essay on Pope, and Johnson is discussing how Warton, in his review of Pope's Essay on Criticism, makes a claim that Johnson is unsure about. Here's the passage:
"He comes next to the Essay on Criticism, the stupendous performance of a youth, not yet twenty years old; and, after having detailed the felicities of condition, to which he imagines Pope to have owed his wonderful prematurity of mind, he tells us, that he is well informed this essay was first written in prose. There is nothing improbable in the report, nothing, indeed, but what is more likely than the contrary; yet I cannot forbear to hint to this writer, and all others, the danger and weakness of trusting too readily to information. [I've already quoted the next sentences in the paragraph about the problem of reproducing false information].

"He proceeds on, examining passage after passage of this essay; but we must pass over all these criticisms, to which we have not something to add or to object, or where this author does not differ from the general voice of mankind."

There's four levels of commentary about how to write criticism in this passage:
First, in the Essay on Criticism Pope is writing about how critics can delight too much in wielding the poison pen and correcting minute errors:
'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:
Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;
A Fool might once himself alone expose,
Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.

Second, Warton is commenting on Pope's skill at writing about criticism. Third, Johnson is writing about how an anecdote gets disseminated in Warton's review. Fourth, Johnson zooms out to consider the value of Warton's minute criticisms that do "not differ from the general voice of mankind." It's like these iterations just keep repeating themselves, even as the authors voice concern about repetition of minute corrections or errors that will make criticism dull.

So this problem seems similar to what occurred in the Franklin essay: anecdotes and corrections are both types of writing that require repetition and reiteration in order to function. But it's hard to write about that repetition without mirroring it, as I've written about before.

Boswell repeats the quotation in his Life of Johnson, and it's reproduced all over the place after that, including in Robert Southey's commonplace book. I first saw the quotation as the epigram to Discarded Science: Ideas That Seemed Good at the Time--a book that spends too much space debunking easy targets such as creationism and alien autopsies and not enough space considering why alchemy, for example, yielded so much knowledge yet was later displaced by other explanations. (The really great book about alchemy and knowledge production is James Morrow's novel The Last Witchfinder, in which the main character tries to emulate Isaac Newton's alchemical work in order to disprove the existence of witches in seventeenth-century England and America. The best part of the book is when she falls in love with none other than Benjamin Franklin, and he has to break the news to her that alchemical proofs aren't sufficient in the age of Royal Society science.) Anyway, it's a good epigram for such a book...but--and this is slightly catty, but relevant to this post about error correction--there's a typo in the epigram.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Fri Sep 14, 01:08:00 PM:
You want to avoid making what Yogi Berra called "the wrong mistake"--the mistake with more serious consequences.

"Wrong mistakes" are typically not caused by a single error or a single person. Instead they arise from systems that are not adequately designed to minimize the effect of cascade of errors, with each error in itself not serious but aligning to produce a disaster. Very often a communication problem is part of that alignment of error, as the Challenger analyses, for example, have shown us.

The other part of error is about how to maintain ongoing high standards of performance. It's hard, and the only answer is double-checking and building systems that automatically require double-checking, every time. Incentives, team spirit, posted reminders--studies in the "Quality Management" world have shown that these sorts of measures work for about a week, and then performance dips.

So. Yes, make the writers write letters of apology for misspelled names. A misspelled name is a "wrong mistake" in a newspaper. For copy mistakes, keep employing copy editors. Seeing a problem in spelling, grammar, or punctuation quickly is a talent, and it's not a talent that writers necessarily need to have. Furthermore, it is a talent that is honed by practice. My students used to be amazed that I could look at their papers and in less than a second say "fix that and that and that before you turn this in."

Copy editors are valuable.