Thursday, June 6, 2024

Quote of the Day (John McPhee, on ‘Elusive’ Typographical Errors)

“Typographical errors are more elusive than cougars. One of my sons-in-law, the poet Mark Svenvold, wrote a nonfiction book called ‘Big Weather,’ about tornadoes and people who chase them, from meteorologists to simple gawkers. Mark went to Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas, and rode around with both categories. When ‘Big Weather’ appeared in hardcover, a sentence in the opening paragraph mentioned ‘the Gulf of New Mexico.’ Where did that mutinous ‘New’ come from, a typo right up there with ‘pretty’ for ‘petty’? Mark said it was unaccountable. For a starter, I suggested that he look in his computer, if the original manuscript was still there. It was, and in that first paragraph was the Gulf of New Mexico…. It had been read by a literary agent, an acquisitions editor, an editorial assistant, a copy editor, a professional proofreader, at least one publicity editor—and not one of these people had noticed the … Gulf of New Mexico.” Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction writer John McPhee, “Tabula Rosa: Volume 4,” The New Yorker, May 20, 2024

As a first-time author, I derive comfort in knowing that even an accomplished veteran like John McPhee and his son-in-law feel bedeviled by typos.

While the longtime New Yorker mainstay likens them to cougars, I regard them as gremlins—mysterious, mischievous forces that torment anyone who wants to communicate their ideas to a wider world.

In the first company I worked for after college, all printed materials had to be proofread not just by the original copywriter, but by another one in the department—and, at each successive stage, preferably by a copywriter who hadn’t seen this before.

The thinking—and it was very wise—was that with each reading, a proofreader’s eyes would glaze over. Someone coming to it fresh would be more likely to spot a mistake.

Nevertheless, as with McPhee’s son-in-law, an error would still sometimes slip into the finished product.

At one point during my time at that company, I came across a cartoon showing a melancholy homeless man, carrying a sign reading, FORMER POOFREADER. Once I finished chuckling, I thought, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” I’m sure many of my co-workers felt likewise.

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