On a textbook, no less.
Some people enjoy spotting rare birds. Well, the birds around here are pretty common. What I get excited about is spotting unusual typographical errors in my reading. I couldn’t believe my luck last night when this incredibly rare example of a double vowelswitch (Vowelswitchus geminus) fluttered into view! Some have argued that such creatures, if they ever existed at all, had long been hunted to extinction by professional editors armed with sophisticated modern software. But here was one in full plumage, effortlessly shifting from one spelling to another as I watched in amazement! I may never be so fortunate again even if I live to be a hundred.
(And no, of course I didn’t highlight in the book. What kind of monster do you think I am? The red and green marks are purely digital additions to the picture I snapped. No rare texts were harmed during the production of this post.)
Pedants delight in error, not in truth, and fall upon it like scavengers on a carcass. I have books, pre-owned—or even pre-loved, as dealers in secondhand objects are now inclined to call them—in which pedants have underlined or scored out words containing misprints, as if the search for such misprints had been their main reason for reading them in the first place. A missing apostrophe may drive a pedant into a paroxysm of pleasurable fury. With what righteous indignation may he (I imagine pedants to be mainly male) mark the page to alert future readers to this disgraceful error!
I could probably maintain a separate blog devoted entirely to documenting the tiny errors I discover in my reading. Thankfully, this has only ever been an idle thought. Most errors are neither egregious nor entertaining enough to call attention to them. One recent exception presented itself in Wallace Kaufman’s Coming Out Of The Woods: The Solitary Life Of A Maverick Naturalist, where Kaufman refers to the “plaintiff sounds of whales” in a section about animal communication. The Onion once joked about the apocalyptic consequences for humanity of dolphins developing opposable thumbs. I don’t want to think about the sort of reparations we’ll be looking at should whales discover the legal process.
I Have a Greater Responsibility Than You Can Possibly Fathom! You Have the Luxury of Not Knowing What I Know!
The pedant seeks error, not truth, and delights to find it. Indeed, the search for error may be the entire purpose of his reading, to judge from certain books dating from the 19th century in my possession. In them, the sole mark made by a previous reader is the emphatic underlining, often accompanied in the margin by an explanation mark or some other expression of joyful discovery, of an error, whether of printing or grammar or fact, and of whatever magnitude. The intellectual or moral significance of the error is quite beside the point; it is the fact of error, and of having found it, that is important to the pedant. He is like a predatory animal stalking its prey, pouncing on it when it comes out in the open.
An “explanation” mark? Is this a sting operation to catch pedants? Surely he just left that there as bait?
Last summer, I was browsing through a book, grading it for resale. It was some hardcover fiction novel which looked to be in pristine condition. While flipping through the pages, though, I caught sight of what looked like pencil markings about two-thirds of the way through. Unusual, I thought; who marks in their beach reading, especially if they’re not going to keep the book? There was one line which referred to a character looking out hizzorher office window in Lyon toward the Mediterranean. Our volunteer copyeditor had underlined “Lyon” and placed a pair of question marks in the margin, followed by a sputtering “Marseille? You can’t see the Mediterranean from Lyon!!”
I was tickled to imagine our anonymous crusader, who, as I said, gave the book away, perhaps out of disgust, but wanted to make sure that no unwary readers would be led astray by such a careless lack of basic research. I like to imagine that a stern letter to the publisher was also sent urging corrections to any future editions (maybe even a direct admonishment to the author, accompanied by a map of France). I don’t remember anything else about the book, not the title, not the author. I know little about France and am not particularly interested to know more. But I have to admit: by God, I know where Lyon and Marseille are now, and I know which one is on the Mediterranean. I like to imagine our tightly-wound pedant offering me a tiny smirk, a knowing look, and a tip of the hat before turning back to another book, pencil in hand.
As the author of a recent book on snobbery, one of Fleming’s new deadly sins, and as of the moment the country’s, perhaps the world’s, leading snobographer, I cannot resist listing the seven deadly sins of snobbery. These are — trumpets please — serving veal and/or iceberg lettuce to company; sending one’s children to land-grant colleges; admitting to having voted for George Bush, the father or the son; owning a Cadillac SUV; mocking denim in public; and openly acknowledging one’s pleasure in slightly overweight women, sweet wine, and Tchaikovsky.
— Joseph Epstein, Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins
Oxford University Press has done an immense disservice to John Zubrzycki’s fascinating “Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic.” Apart from some print-on-demand atrocities, I’ve seldom encountered a book in which so many words have been repeated, dropped, misspelled or misused. I can only suppose that this slovenliness — “damming” for “damning,” sentences garbled because of a missing verb or pronoun — indicates over-reliance on a computerized auto-correct function. No competent proofreader would have allowed such an embarrassing farrago to go to press.
Unfortunately, OUP “has previous,” as the Brits like to say. I’m afraid the rot runs deep.
Weird Al ain’t seen nothin’ yet. I’m currently reading Todd Tremlin’s Minds and Gods, and I… well. Sorry, I’m simply too distraught to beat around the bush. Just look at these elementary errors I’ve encountered already. Look at them.
Page 15: This is not to say that the kinds of mental mechanisms that would eventually lead to higher, modern modes of thought were not yet being set in place — they where.
Page 18: The bodies of the robust austrolopithecines where more heavily built than those of the graciles but remained of similar size and weight.
Page 22: The facial features of Neanderthal include a low, slopping forehead, large nose, pronounced jaws, and double-arched brow ridges.
Page 24: On the other hand, a focus on superior mental abilities cannot loose sight of the fact that the modern mind is the result of evolutionary development.
Page 39: Heightened fuel demands also make one vulnerable to times of famine and draught.
Page 77: Similarly, if you reach for the light switch in a strange room and your hand instead brushes a fur coat hanging on a nearby hook, it’s a safe beat you’ll quickly pull away.
I’ve still got a hundred pages to go, so there’s a very good chance I’ll find more. I just figured, at this rate, the errors are starting to outstrip my ability to keep them all in short-term memory, so I’d better document them. Oh, and the final insult? Published by Oxford University Press, an august name that formerly would have inspired a good deal of respect from me. Of course, you’d expect this sort of slapdash inattention to detail from your typical Farrar, Straus & Giroux or W.W. Norton, but this…just…gah. I mean, my god, I’d get fired if I signed off on a generic corporate blog post that contained this many glaring mistakes. Whatever OUP is paying their proofreaders, it’s more than they deserve. Hint, hint.
There is a lesson here. Idiomatic mistakes, at least the ones that stick, are not produced by the hoi polloi. They happen when people try to sound educated—or to be precise, when educated people try to sound more educated than they actually are. A little learning is a dangerous thing. You hear a word like vagaries or misnomer, you think it sounds impressive, you think you know what it means, and you deploy it the next chance you get. And then somebody who has less cultural capital than you, and who looks to you as an authority, picks it up and uses it in turn.
I don’t think it’s so much a hierarchy of authority, I think it’s probably more like the children’s game of telephone. Those of us who don’t read dictionaries for fun — not that I know any people who actually do stuff like that — learn most of our new words through the context of conversation. The speaker doesn’t have to be personally authoritative; the word just has to plausibly fit in the overall sense of the surrounding sentences. If I came across a word I didn’t recognize, and I didn’t feel like looking it up, I’d figure out what the speaker or author was getting at, and look for any vacant space of meaning, so to speak, where I could fit the new word in.
Speaking of pedantry, though, I found this amusing: I finished reading Dennis Baron’s book A Better Pencil last week. Baron, a professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, had this to say on page 222:
Plus, as an editor of mine once told me ruefully, even printed books are never error-free: there’s always some infelicity of style, misstated fact, or typo that has escaped the eagle eye of editor and proofer…
Followed by, as if to prove the very point, on page 241:
Nor should it come as news that all technologies of the word control access, or attempt to do so: the full force of the law will come down on anyone who tries to sneak a peak at the latest Harry Potter before its release date…
Nooo! They got the English and Linguistics professor, too! Damn it. Looks like I’m going to have to steel myself for a long, solitary guerrilla campaign on this front.
Well, Adult Swim’s official source for stop-motion pop culture commentary, Robot Chicken, has just given us a sneak-peak at Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman’s debut on the show…
The Internet has even reduced the time we have to wait to see tomorrow’s Barack Obama laden front pages, with Twitter giving us a sneak peak of various papers’s covers.
You see? You see what happens when the rot sets in and is allowed to spread?