Fight the Good Fight Against Creeping Errors

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Editing, the skill set practiced by the other half of my writer/editor dual personality, is a pleasurable pursuit for me. It enables me to practice problem solving, help people express themselves, and improve my own writing. But as I peruse some of the prose I examine professionally — more than a million words each year — I repeatedly come across banal but annoying errors that baffle me.

There are corollaries of these mistakes in every profession, and in the personal compartments of one’s life. They’re the editorial equivalent of finding that the toilet seat has been left up. (I’m sure you can think of cognates in your experience.) These are among those indefensible editorial errors that seem to perpetuate themselves like a virus, inconsequential in isolation but aggravating in the aggregate.

One irritating error I find often is the intrusive framing of a name in commas when it is a nonrestrictive appositive of a preceding description of the person named, as in “The exhibition showcases the work of photographer, Mathew Brady, who produced many iconic images from the Civil War era.” This type of mistake is rarely replicated in well-edited publications. Unfortunately, many people are corrupted by its ubiquitous appearance in not-so-well-edited publications, and it is thus passed on to infect others.

(This error is no doubt influenced by a superficially similar — and correct — construction: “The exhibition showcases the work of the photographer, Mathew Brady, who produced many iconic images from the Civil War era.” This is correct form only if the photographer has already been referred to as such in a previous sentence without being named. Also, some publications precede an epithet describing a prominent person with the — as in “The exhibition showcases the work of the photographer Mathew Brady, who produced many iconic images from the Civil War era” — though the insertion is an unnecessary affection — but notice that the name is not set off by a pair of commas.)

Many other examples of such evergreen errors exist, including words misspelled (definately in place of definitely), imperfectly rendered because they’re imperfectly heard (supposably substituting for supposedly), unnecessarily augmented (irregardless, when regardless is sufficient), or faultily combined (alot instead of “a lot”). The persistent prevalence of these mutations is baffling, considering that the correct forms are found in any self-respecting publication. But the answer must lie in the explosion of email and texting, the proliferation of blogs and websites with less-than-rigorous editing, and the erosion of editorial quality in traditional print publications.

The only defense against deterioration of grammar, syntax, usage, spelling, and punctuation standards is careful writing and careful editing with the assistance of good role models, knowledgeable editors, and reliable reference sources.

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24 thoughts on “Fight the Good Fight Against Creeping Errors”

  1. I really love your tips and articles and have them all filed on my computer for future referrals. I find that I, too, am AMAZED at some of the errors I see repeatedly being made – it just boggles this proofreader – editor’s mind.

    Keep the great info coming!

    your fan!


  2. An error–a defensible one, I’d say–crept into the fourth paragraph of your essay. It appears you dropped a syllable from “affectation.”

  3. Thanks for the excellent post, Mark

    I share your dismay. Professionally edited books and publications should not mistake diffuse for defuse, compliment for complement – and the list sadly goes on.

  4. Too many times people rush through their work and simply do not take time to run a quick spelling and grammar check or they are too lazy, or both. Though knowing how to write and spell well does not define one’s intelligence, it certainly comes across as that.

  5. My pet hate is the incorrect use of ‘…and I’ where ‘…and me’ is grammatical – as in “Uncle John took a picture of Katie and I.’

    I see this so often that, unfortunately, I think there will come a point where it’s considered acceptable.

  6. An unfortunate error that has come into usage so common that I am concerned it will be considered acceptable, is the misuse of the simple past tense of see. Television and radio reporters, news anchor personalities, talk show beings, guys and gals down the street, and so many others, seem incapable of saying “I saw.” So they “seen” emergency responders arriving at a fire or crime scene, bigfoot, UFOs, a big wave, seals, sea lions, jet planes, wild fires, forest fires, desserts AND deserts, Prince Harry, Prince, and prints in the desert. It’s as if the whole of America skipped the Seventh and Eight grades, and as if their high school didn’t require freshman English. (And, I have a sneaking suspicion that there is a course in journalism schools that requires the students to forget their English speaking and writing skills.) Rant . . . over.

  7. I also think the persistent prevalence of these mutations is due to the fact that correct grammar and spelling are not expected/corrected in schools. Most teachers do not penalize or even point out such errors, unless it is strictly an English class. Students don’t appreciate the importance of rendering their prose correctly, since it appears to be acceptable.

    When I was in college, as an officer of honor society, I read applications we had sent to students with an average of 3.75 or over. I was amazed that the vast majority could not write two sentences without a grammar or spelling error.

    I would not be too quick to blame texting (although I have other concerns about that). People abbreviate intentionally for speed, due to the difficulty of tapping on tiny or virtual keyboards, and they are generally aware they are making shortcuts.

    My pet peeve is lie/lay. Even nurses and physical therapists murder this pair with impunity. Also, the newly acceptable use of “impacted” to replace “affected” still grates my nerves.

  8. What could possibly explain the apparent universal acceptance of “if I would’ve known” in place of “if I had known” in conversation? Is it an epidemic of conjunctive-itis?

  9. I am editorial director for an online weight loss company. My pet peeve is recurring confusion between ‘lose’ and ‘loose’. It seems as if the majority of our subscribers want to ‘loose weight’. Sigh.

  10. Dear Mark Nichol

    It sometimes feels like I’m drowning, trying to negotiate my way through the endless sea of web sites competing for my time and attention.

    Your texts seem always to be able to stir my awareness and interest, so I print them out and read them while eating. I haven’t lost my appetite yet:-)

    They are addictive, leave me craving for more, being both inspirational and educational.

    Thank you

  11. Yes, Stefano: “compliment for complement” is a salient and persistent error.
    If people learned geometry and learned its terminology, then they would know about the term “complementary angle”. These are two angles that add up to 180 degrees, and they are not “complimentary”.
    It is also worth mentioning that two supplementary angles add up to 90 degrees.

    It used to be that a knowledge of Euclidean geometry was essential for any gentleman or gentlewoman. Learning geometry is a basic education in logic, and why has such a basic faded so badly in our educational system?

  12. To Mr. Nichol and others:
    “Also, some publications precede an epithet describing a prominent person with the…” as in “The exhibition showcases the work of the photographer Mathew Brady..”

    Numerous distinguished sources on English state that the word “the” is necessary here. They also state that the omission of “the” is a sign of informal and cheap writing, such as is found in tabloids.

    There is good logic here. We need to distinguish between different people who have the same name:
    the photographer Mathew Brady
    the teacher Mathew Brady
    the bricklayer Mathew Brady
    the physician Mathew Brady
    the taxi driver Mathew Brady

  13. To Michael Batey:
    It has gotten to the point where there are TV commercials in which phrases like “to my friend and I” are used where “me” is needed.
    I would think that there would be motivation to be grammatically correct in such a public usage. Not so.

    I contacted a company about a different kind of a glaring error in its TV commercial, and I asked for it to be corrected. I got a phone call from a woman with that company, and she told me that the commercial had been shown to test audiences and it has passed muster – and that was all that the company cared about.

    I pointed out to her that it is easy to find a test audience of dimwits, but that still didn’t make things RIGHT. Nevertheless, that did not bring any progress, either, as far as I could tell.

  14. To: Nick Trusiewicz

    The words “impact” and “impacted” have become some kind of crazy words that are “in vogue”. So many people cannot resist using them (in inappropriate situations, too). Some of the reason for this has been the gross decline in the size of the vocabulary of the general public.

    Writers and speakers simply do not consider using such words as:
    affect, influence, bear upon, modify, sway, transform.

    I have also had trouble with some state officials in Alabama, and it don’t doubt that it happens in lots of other states, too. I wanted to get some wrong righted or some problem corrected. I got the lousy response that the office did not have the “authority” to do anything about it.
    I have even gone as far as to tell the state official, “There is such thing as to influence. Use your moral influence to tell the people involved that what they are doing is WRONG and that they ought to correct it.” However, that got nowhere. Why is is that such people have lost the notion to influence things – entirely?
    My hypothesis is that they lack moral integrity and intelligence, but I could be wrong. Sheer laziness is another one.

  15. The misuse of “lay” vs. “lie” has gone too far.

    There was a TV commercial in which a sexy actress/model (Carmen Electra) said that men will have a lot of trouble shaving when their whiskers do LAY down. (This is not intended to be a direct quotation. Do you remember what that was?)

    The writers made a big mistake, and apparently Ms. Electra did not complain about it. (“I won’t say that junk!”)
    Well, we have trouble with whiskers that LIE down.
    Furthermore, the expression “lay down” also has a sexual connotation to it. Was that used deliberately? Just because a lovely woman like Carmen Electra was goig to say it?

  16. Mark: I sympathize, and I don’t edit remotely as much as you do. One that crops up more often wrong than right in my sphere is seperate for separate. But do you really get people writing irregardless or supposably? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not doubting you– I wish that were the case. But dear God. Who does this?

  17. I like to flex my editing muscles by modifying entries in Wikipedia. I enjoy hacking away at the creeping vines of rampant errors. It’s purely voluntary, unpaid work, but it’s also a true labor of love.

  18. It’s really apalling to see the rate people commit grammatical blunder nowadays without caring. For instance you hear someone else saying ”a criteria” when he actually means ”a criterion”. U may also hear people speaking ”every schools” instead of ”every school”, ”every children” instead of ”every child”. I feel there is an urgent need for people to go back to school in order to learn good English or alternatively higher a good English coach, that way we can save good grammer. Otherwise, grammatical blunder will grow much stronger and prevail.

  19. To Andy Knoedler:
    I also edit entries in the Wikipedia, just as unpaid volunteer work.
    I used to just edit sentences, but then I got an e-mail from someone in that organization telling me that I ought to fill in a “reason” comment about them.
    I decided then that I was going to “put it to” people who write dumbly, and I and quite frank and direct about it.
    One of my favorites is to remove unnecessary hyphens following prefixes like anti, bi, counter, hemi, mega, mini, micro, neo, pre, re, semi, super, sub, and ultra. I tell them that these are never hyphenated, with rare exeptions, and just to “glue” the prefixes on.
    Then I list some of the exceptions, which come when proper nouns are involved, especially anti-British, anti-Irish, anti-Catholic, anti-Protestant, anti-French, anti-Nazi. This is because I think that the excessive hyphens come from the British Isles. There are also anti-American and anti-Canadian.

    By the way, northeast, northwest, southwest, and southeast have been used in the United States AND in Canada for centuries, and very efficiently, too. Why cannot Europe and Australia join us?
    The official name of a large part of Canada is the “Northwest Territories”. The United States had a Northwest Territory, too, established in 1787. Most of that land has been Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin for a long time now. (A little of it is part of Minnesota.) The name Northwest Territories was established by an act of the Canadian Parliament in 1912.

  20. To Nelson Carter: All is well. I had thought that you were being humorous with “conjunctive-itis”.
    There is a common eye infection that is called “conjunctivitis”, and I thought that you were referring to people who are too vision-impaired (mentally) to look and do some proofreading.

  21. I read an article about meteorite craters that mentioned on in the “Northwest Territory” of AUSTRALIA.
    There isn’t any such place on that whole continent!
    Why does such carelessness abound?

    Australia has a Northern Territory that is directly north of South Australia and west of Queensland and east of Western Australia.
    There isn’t anything “northwest” about it.

    The Northern Territory is too sparsely-populated to become a state of Australia, but it has been granted seats in the Australian Parliament, and so had the Australian Capital Territory.

    The three territories of Canada – Yukon, Northwest, and Nunavut – have seats in the Canadian Parliament, and Canada does not have a capital territory. Ottawa is in Ontario, though its metropolitan area extends into western Quebec.

    All of this is different from the United States, in which only the States have voting seats in Congress.

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