Fight the Good Fight Against Creeping Errors
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 an 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 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.