Because of an Editing Error.

As a retired copyeditor, I of course enjoyed David Vecsey’s report from the NYT trenches:

It is a feeling that every copy editor knows. You bolt upright out of a deep sleep at 3 a.m., eyes wide open, and you say to yourself, Did I misspell “Kyrgyzstan” last night? And nine times out of 10, you can go back to sleep comfortably knowing … that you did.

Copy editors — those of us who polish articles and write headlines and photo captions — have an almost photographic memory when it comes to the words that pass before our eyes. Unfortunately, the cameras we use are those old-fashioned tripods that use flaming magnesium for a flash and take hours, or even days, for the pictures to develop. But eventually it all comes back in a rush of clarity. You might be pushing your toddler through the park on a glorious sunny day off when suddenly you ask yourself: Did I say Dallas was the capital of Texas last week? Yes. Yes, you did. You idiot.

My latest foray into the Corrections list came last month when I wrote a photo caption identifying Senator Tom Udall of Utah. And by Utah, obviously, I meant New Mexico. Because that’s the state he represents. (Until this week.)

My job, simply speaking, is to get things right. So there is no worse feeling than the realization that you have entered a correctable error into print and that a correction will appear a day or two later to proclaim, “Because of an editing error …” There is no escaping the page of the newspaper that you have marred; it reappears everywhere you look: blowing down the sidewalk, on a subway car, wrapped around the sea bass you’ve just bought at the market. There is no doubt that five years from now, I’ll buy something on eBay and it will come in a box padded with a scrap of The New York Times that says “Tom Udall of Utah.”

So how does this happen? In many wonderful and colorful ways. In this case, I’m pretty sure I typed “Udall” and then typed “Utah” because of the alliterative assonance. The brain plays funny tricks like that. You can be absent-minded: I have typed the first names of friends who have the same last name of the person I was actually writing about. Or you can simply be lazy: I misspelled both “Micheal Jordan” and “Wayne Gretsky” … in the same headline. […]

The Corrections listings are one of the first things I read every day, and that is a common practice among many copy editors. It’s not necessarily an act of schadenfreude (but maybe a little) as much as it’s a daily reminder of the importance of diligence: Double-check your math. Look up even the most famous of quotations.

Reading through New York Times corrections is like taking a guided tour of journalism’s pitfalls. It’s where you discover the Ginsberg-Ginsburg Vortex, a black hole that has devoured many a journalist who has confused the names of the poet and the justice. And it’s a parallel universe in which former Secretary of State George P. Shultz has a “c” in his last name, and the Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz has a “t.”

But Times corrections are so much more than pedestrian spelling mistakes. They are wonderfully nuanced cultural explorations. When we misidentified the name of Bilbo Baggins’s sword in “The Hobbit” as Orcrist the Goblin Cleaver, it was both the greatest and the nerdiest correction of all time. (Real nerds also noted that Bilbo Baggins, being a Hobbit, didn’t carry a “sword” but a “dagger.” Its name was Sting.)

Note that Times style is “copy editor” (two words), whereas I was taught “copyeditor” (closed up). It’s just style, mandated only within a given organization. Otherwise, as long as you’re consistent, you’re good — that is, of course, unless you have a positive craving for inconsistency. (Thanks, Eric!)


  1. Four scions of the Udall family have served in Congress: brothers Stewart and Mo, and their sons Tom and Mark, respectively. However, despite being Mormons, none of them has represented the state of Utah. (They are related to Utah senator Mike Lee, however.)

  2. I get scared of combinations like “copyeditor”, because spell checkers yell at me until I throw them a hyphen at least; and then I think to myself, do people who read my writing think I am German?

  3. So, Hat, in your experience, what mental skills separate being someone who is good at spotting errors from a professional copyeditor?

  4. Stu Clayton says:

    A professional copyeditor spots errors in texts that have been assigned to her for copyediting, in exchange for remuneration. Someone who is good at spotting errors spots them gratis, even in texts that have not been assigned to him. I myself am good at spotting errors of any kind, not just in print, without having been solicited to do so. I also tend to point them out, equally unaufgefordert.

    I’m not sure that any particular mental skills are needed here. Nerdy censoriousness will set you up just fine.

  5. J.W. Brewer says:

    I would have thought Mr. Vecsey’s prior employer the Peoria Journal Star would have been the Journal-Star. But apparently not. No accounting for taste, I suppose.

  6. So, Hat, in your experience, what mental skills separate being someone who is good at spotting errors from a professional copyeditor?

    I guess the main thing would be an ability to separate one’s own sense of what is Right and Proper from what the style guide mandates. If you can’t do that, you’ll never make a good professional.

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    What, nerdy censoriousness is not a skill now? Admittedly, some have more natural aptitude than others, but when I think of the intensive practice I’ve put in over the years … 10,000 hours, nothing.

  8. John Emerson says:

    It’s easy enough to be nerdy and censorious whenever the occasion arises and you’re in the mood, but only a real pro can get up every morning at dawn and be nerdy and censorious all day long.

  9. Stu Clayton says:

    @DE: What, nerdy censoriousness is not a skill now?

    My assertion was merely that it is not a mental skill. Rather, a matter of discipline and cultivating the right habits, as JE implies. In regard to your esteemed person, if you claim error-spotting as a skill, then I would deem it a conscientious nerdy censoriousness, to which no blame attaches.

  10. I wonder what level of nerdiness it is to point out that while Sting is introduced first as a ‘knife’ that ‘was as good as a short sword for the hobbit’, it’s usually just called a ‘sword’ after that!

  11. January First-of-May says:

    Four scions of the Udall family have served in Congress: brothers Stewart and Mo, and their sons Tom and Mark, respectively.

    Stewart and Mo coincidentally happen to be the namesakes of Point Udall, US Virgin Islands, and Point Udall, Guam, respectively the easternmost and westernmost points of US territory (by direction of travel, i.e. ignoring the 180th meridian and the International Date Line).

  12. John Emerson says:

    January: Now finally there’s some useful information on this site.

  13. Graham Asher says:

    “Point Udall, US Virgin Islands, and Point Udall, Guam, respectively the easternmost and westernmost points of US territory (by direction of travel, i.e. ignoring the 180th meridian and the International Date Line)”.

    That’s interestingly hard to define. It only works if you fix a starting point, because obviously if you travel east from the US Virgin Islands you will eventually get to more US territory without crossing the antimeridian or dateline. So I guess you mean ‘starting from the continental USA’. For a hypothetical country consisting of various places scattered around the globe it’s not very meaningful to talk about easternmost and westernmost points. But wait, there is such a country: France. Unlike the UK, it treats its remaining colonial possessions as integral parts of France. I suppose you would start at Paris, and count somewhere in French Polynesia as the western extreme and Wallis and Futuna as the easternmost.

    I admit I’m a map nerd but I am a professional one. I have to worry about this sort of thing when enabling my map software to draw maps of Fiji, which straddles the antimeridian.

  14. Lars Mathiesen says:

    I would go for the shortest contiguous set of meridians that will cover the country. But yeah, you can’t order the circle.

  15. This is the shortest proof that I know of of irrationality of π

  16. Lars Mathiesen says:

    I’m not sure I follow?

  17. Stu Clayton says:

    I would go for the shortest contiguous set of meridians that will cover the country.

    That doesn’t work at the poles, and the set “gets wider” for a country near one of them, compared with a country of the same size located closer to the equator. But it still works if you change the coordinates. You simply rotate the (axis through the) poles so that the resultant equator goes through the middle of the given country, and take the meridians with respect to that pole position.

    For every country (or, better, large area) you can create its “own” Mercator projection or any other kind.

  18. Lars Mathiesen says:

    So let’s ignore any land claims in Antarctica innit. Of course you can construct a distribution of land masses that will defeat simple heuristics, but France and the US are not that complicated.

    Also how do you define the middle? The surface point directly over the center of mass? (And if that happens to be the center of the Earth, or on the polar axis, you still have problems).

  19. Stu Clayton says:

    A middle, then. Take the smallest circumscribed spherical circle around the country to get a “midpoint” (which may lie outside the country, so what?). Take any line through the midpoint as a line through the middle of the country. Was nicht paßt, wird passend gemacht.

    Or start with a “smallest containing rectangle”, formed by the closest pair of latitudes just touching the country, and the closest pair of longitudes just touching the country.

  20. J.W. Brewer says:

    Somewhat related is this new piece by a copy editor who can’t get over that time in junior high when he mispronounced “debacle” and wishes he could have the self-confidence of a certain rock star who was willing to make mistakes boldly and then move on, secure in the knowledge that it was someone else’s job to clean up afterwards.

  21. Stu Clayton says:

    That article is a nice example of sensitive-plant plaintiveness, a special kind of virtue signalling in our days. “Folks, I fret about peanuts from the past !”

    The article appears under a “Fixations” category, but my guess is that it is intended to increase the author’s chances of getting laid.

  22. Also how do you define the middle?

    I would define the middle as the point with the minimum average surface distance to all points in the territory (might be fun if the height is included). But I wouldn’t go Stu Clayton route to define East-West expanse even if his method is the best for cartography. East and West are directions of rotation relative to Earth’s axis. Let’s keep this fixed.

  23. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Even ignoring complications like bits of France on the other side of the globe, you also get oddities like boomerang-shaped Croatia, whose centre of gravity is not in Croatia. There are also probably some less obvious examples. Yes: Vietnam.

  24. Maldives.

  25. Israel, excluding the West Bank, might be concave enough for your purposes. Greece, Cuba, Laos, and North Korea, too. Japan, if you allow some mild islandness.

  26. Lars Mathiesen says:

    smallest containing rectangle — now we’re begging the question innit.

    But there are lots of different heuristics that will give the same result for all current nation states. The hypothetical oddities that are hard to deal with are things like a nation consisting of two 1-degree squares centered on 0°N, 0°W and 0°N, 180°W — or anything else that has two-fold rotational symmetry around the polar axis, really.

  27. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    A country’s mean center of population is a reasonably standard definition of its middle, and I’d say a more intuitive one than alternatives based on land mass.

    It’s an official computation for the US, and it justifies the conventional notions of what’s west and what’s east. Steadily moving west since the country has existed, and south for the past century, the center has been in Missouri for the past few decades.

    The method seems to work for the world too, whose mean center of population is somewhere in Central Asia.

    I couldn’t find the mean center of population of Croatia, but I suspect it lies within Croatia. All of Dalmatia has only 0.9 million people, compared to 3.4 in Northern Croatia. Greater Zagreb alone has 1.1. That’s probably enough to keep the mean center of population close enough to Zagreb to remain in Croatia, somewhere around Sisak. Wikipedia reports that to be true of the median center, which is less elegant but much more easily computed.

    I wonder about Vietnam too. Its mean center probably in Laos like its median center, but I cannot rule out that population could be so concentrated on the coast to drag the mean center into Vietnam.

  28. Theoretically, mean center should be more sensitive to a small far away population than a median one. And what do you mean by “…the world[], whose mean center of population is somewhere in Central Asia”? Epicenter?

    P.S. Let’s turn median into a verb. For example, let’s make it mean to put in the middle

  29. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    @D.O., I’m not sure terminology is settled. At least I ignore it, hence the confusion. Sorry!

    The easy measure provided by Wikipedia in its maps is a cheap median: the intersection of the meridian and the parallel that both split country population in half. Not sure this has appealing mathematical properties, but it’s simple enough. I suppose we could complain again that for a world-straddling country this is ill-defined — you should use the full great circle instead and you’d get two points. But again, it’s just a cheap shortcut, and for all practical cases it’s intuitively obvious which of the two meridians is the sensible one to pick.

    The median center you’re thinking of is instead, I gather, the place minimizing average distance from the population. This is more appealing mathematically, but harder to compute. It turns out, reading more carefully than I had done at first, it’s what the Wikipedia references compute for the world and locate in Central Asia. They use geodesic distance, which seems right to me, since we travel pretty much on the Earth’s surface.

    Once you’re doing that, you might as well compute the mean center of the world’s population as the point that minimizes mean square geodesic distance from us all. I thought that’s what they were locating in Central Asia, but they don’t. Since, as you say, that would be more sensitive to outliers, it should move a bit southwest for the sake of Latin America. Maybe the center of the world is Jerusalem after all …

  30. Thank you so much for the explanation. I really didn’t want to get into the weeds myself.

  31. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    A question only tenuously related to what’s above, but who cares about that: why do modern editors hate italics (not so much for emphasis, but for supplying important information)?

    When I was first concerned with academic journals in the 1960s, many (maybe most), cited papers like this:

    1. Author(s) in normal text, last name first, “and” or & before last author; et al. only if there are more than 3, and not always even then;

    2. Year of publication in parentheses, either there or at the very end;

    3. (No title);

    4. Standard journal abbreviation, in italics;

    5. Volume number, in bold, followed by a comma;

    6. First page number (no final page).

    In respects things have improved. Most journals now require titles, and that’s fine. Sometimes they put initials before surnames, and in general that’s what I prefer, but I don’t lose sleep worrying about it. Most of them want final page numbers, and that’s also fine.

    Other changes are in the wrong direction, e.g.

    P. Rous, J.R. Turner. The preservation of living red blood cells in vitro. J. Exp. Med. 23 (1916) 219–237.

    No “and” or &. No space between J. and R. No quotation marks around the title. No italics, either for “in vitro” or for “J. Exp. Med.”. (Some journals would write “J Exp Med”, but not the one I’m quoting). No bold (bold is of course horrible if over-used, but in “23” it provides information). No punctuation after the volume number. Year in a daft place.

    Can anyone persuade me that this style is good? In particular, what’s wrong with putting journal names or abbreviations in italics?

    To be more explicit, what I’d like for the above example would be

    P. Rous and J. R. Turner (1916) “The preservation of living red blood cells in vitro“. J. Exp. Med. 23, 219–237.

  32. The latter is what I’m used to seeing; are you sure the simplified style (which I agree is awful) is as prevalent as all that, or are you just so appalled by it you notice it more?

  33. @Athel Cornish-Bowden: I personally prefer the appearance of author lists without the inclusion of “and”; however, that’s a very minor point. In many (American) physics journals, the year of publication actually comes at the very end of the citation, whereas closer to the beginning would generally be more useful. I also agree that using quotation marks for article titles, italics for journal names, and bold for volume numbers makes it easier to decode printed references with in a single glance.

  34. Yeah, I should clarify that I don’t care at all about the “and” — I’m only concerned with the formatting.

  35. Trond Engen says:

    I have a lot of reformatting to do.

  36. Isn’t it what the Reformation was about? With the advent of mass printing they required not only chapter and verse, but also page(s) and year. Otherwise papism could sneek in.

    ADDED ON EDIT: Devil is in the details.

    (Semi)-seriously, though, EndNote/bibtex helps. Stupid endnote doesn’t allow to add or remove points in abbreviated journal names automatically. At least, I didn’t figure out how.

  37. Trond Engen says:

    I first wrote reformating. Now I wish I’d kept it for the sake of your comment.

  38. John Cowan says:

    Sometimes they put initials before surnames, and in general that’s what I prefer, but I don’t lose sleep worrying about it.

    Unless of course you are the wrong D. Stampe. Or the right one, for that matter.

    J. Exp. Med. 23, 219–237

    I rather like U.S. legal (Bluebook) style: “23 Rutgers L. Rev. 219-237”, which keeps the numbers well separated.

    I have a lot of reformatting to do.

    Or back-formãting.

  39. J.W. Brewer says:

    Usually in bluebookish style you just give the first page of the article, possibly followed by a specific subsequent page or pages you’re specifically quoting referencing for a more focused point. But if you’re “pin-citing” a 19-page stretch, you’re doing it wrong. I do agree that the convention of putting the volume number and the page number on opposite sides of the standard abbreviation for the journal and/or case reporter is a useful way of avoiding confusion. Although maybe I’m just saying that because it’s a style I’m habituated to and if I had been habituated to a different style I’d still manage to avoid confusion.

  40. There’s not enough use of bold text in fiction. Early novels capitalised the names of newly introduced characters; a modern could use bold for that.

  41. Didn’t poems used to do that capitalization thing, too?

  42. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Unless of course you are the wrong D. Stampe.

    Until I followed your link I wondered if you were referring to confusion between first names and last names (you weren’t, of course). I quite like including first names, but it isn’t always obvious which is which. The P. Rous that I cited was Peyton Rous, who holds the record for the longest interval between getting the Nobel Prize (1966) and doing the research that led to it (1911). (He showed that a cancer, chicken sarcoma, can be transmitted from one bird to another.)

  43. ə de vivre says:

    For people who normally put their given name before their family name, “last, first [middle initial(s)]” is my preferred format. Traditions about hyphenating compound first and last names vary, and it’s nice to be able to tell at a glance where the last name begins.* Having the full first name(s) rather than initials also makes it easier to Google an author when all I’ve got to go on is a bibliography entry.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if some journals have done away with italics in their bibliography entries because that means they can just highlight the whole bibliography, set the whole thing roman, and be done with it. A large enough portion of authors seem to be either unable or unwilling to format their own bibliographies, and eliminating italics means one less thing for the editor (if one exists in any meaningful capacity) to check.

    PS, I’m pretty sure it was here that I first saw Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names.

    * I once had a job doing data-entry here in Montreal that involved making sure cheques got to the proper recipient, and due to the formatting of the information, it was often a pain in the ass to figure out if “PATRICK JEAN HADDAD” was “Jean Haddad, Patrick” or “Haddad, Patrick Jean.”

  44. Wyclef Jean’s name always makes me mentally cross-eyed.

  45. I’m pretty sure it was here that I first saw Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names.

    Could have been here.

  46. If I were giving a final exam in copyediting, one of the questions would be: “How would you include Thích Nhất Hạnh in a Last Name, First Name list? Explain your reasoning.” (I once had to check this for a book I was editing. If it were a normal Vietnamese name, it would be Hạnh, Thích Nhất per Chicago rules, but it’s not.)

  47. Another would be about Waziyatawin Angela Wilson (so identified as the author of one of her books).

  48. Sometime I should post the list of sample queries I kept in case I ever had occasion to create a professional website offering my services (which I never did — too lazy, never quite hungry enough); the problem would be how to avoid embarrassing the authors of the respective books.

  49. John Cowan says:

    “Against Structured Names and Telephone Numbers” was something I wrote when I was working at Google; I took it with me when I left.

  50. David Marjanović says:

    Maybe the center of the world is Jerusalem after all …

    Maybe the mean center is Jerusalem, and the median center is in Midian somewhere!

    (Some journals would write “J Exp Med”, but not the one I’m quoting)

    Various medical journals, and the PLOS journals outside of medicine, write “J Exp Med.” with one period that means “here is where this abbreviated journal name ends”.

    Can anyone persuade me that this style is good?

    No, why? If you don’t like it, just pick another journal if you can afford its impact factor. In biology, practically every journal has its own subtly unique citation style.

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