Just trying to get it right


Apart from one or two regulars — Tom Hodgson comes to mind — no one winces more disconsolately than we do at the flaws in the weekly, and more and more often, daily, dose of prose The Times publishes. Of course, counting article texts, headlines, captions, display and classified advertisements, lists of names, and letters, there are grand and abundant possibilities for making mistakes. Facts, spelling, grammar, punctuation — everywhere there are pitfalls. Into which we sometimes fall, though not as often as we might.

And, in saying this, I know that I leave out our points of view, which for many readers are just plain piggish, no matter how dolled up with the lip gloss that is sound construction, correct spelling, comprehensible grammar, and so forth.

Plus, there is the matter of style, our style. Some newspapers, some writing, no matter where you find it, are up-style, in matters of style. They never met a common noun, never mind a proper noun, that hasn’t earned a beginning capital letter. We’re a down-style newspaper. We lower case every noun we possibly can, and we’re churlish about honorifics.

Recently, we’ve been struggling with apostrophes and possession. We found that we were adding apostrophes but leaving off the S that ought to have followed. For instance, we were writing Mrs. Richards’ beehive hairdo, when it ought to have been Mrs. Richards’s.

We were confused, I think, over what was required to make a possessive out of a noun — in this case a proper noun — like Richards that ends in S. It requires the ‘s. Trying to be more discriminating, we got all mixed up, and began writing “The baseballs’s carrying bag needs to stay in the dugout.” I think we’ve sorted it out.

It doesn’t help when the experts to which you turn for the final word on such a subject write, “Since writers vary in the use of the apostrophe, it is not possible to make a hard and fast rule about the apostrophe in singular words ending in s.… Punctuate according to pronunciation.” (John E. Warriner, English Grammar and Composition).

Wrestling something like apostrophes into submission is a lot less challenging than factual errors. Here, there’s a real chance that someone on the receiving end of what we publish may be hurt. I mean embarrassed or saddened.

Something that happened to me more than 30 years ago comes to mind. At another newspaper, I published a birth announcement that said, more or less, “Jane and Robert Doe announce the birth of their daughter Ann Doe, at 11 am on Thursday.” We got the information over the phone from the brother of the new mother.

Or so we thought.

In fact, the source of the information was a jilted lover, who’d been replaced in his beloved’s affections by the man named as the new father in our report. The woman was neither a mother, nor was she about to be one. The man in the news report was not a father or a father to be. It was an evil ruse, intended to embarrass the subjects of the birth announcement and their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and so forth, which it did. There were parents crying on the phone that morning.

We require more formal submissions of information about newborns these days.

Then there was the time that we published an advertisement for a customer’s motorboat, which was for sale. The price was wrong. The boat was worth $10,000, but our published ad said the price was $100. The advertiser was overwhelmed with calls. He asked us nicely to correct the ad and re-run it. Of course, we said confidently. We re-ran it all right, but somehow, we didn’t correct it. His phone kept ringing. His patience running thin, he came in to ask that we make sure to correct the price. We made sure to try, but we failed. The mispriced boat ad ran again.

By this time the customer had been brought low. He was no longer cross with us, he was desperate. His phone rang and rang, at all hours. His wife was furious, with us of course, but in the more painful and proximate sense, with him. He begged us to take the ad out altogether. He’d keep the boat.

Of course, we didn’t charge for the multiple insertions.

Not only do we do our best to get every single thing right, before we publish, but we study the product after it’s published to see if anything escaped us. Add to this the eagle-eyed readers who are whipping off emails, texts, and comments to say, a mildly triumphant note in their communications, “You screwed up … ” And finally, there’s the final debasement. We have to publish a correction, acknowledging the mistake and making it right.

Which brings me to the point. You will see that we have reorganized our corrections practice in print, categorizing the corrections by newspaper section — News, Community, Calendar, Briefs, etc. And, online at mvtimes.com, you’ll find articles in which corrections, clarifications, or expansions of information are incorporated in the updated text. But, when that is the case, you’ll also find a note explaining that the text has been changed and now differs from the text of its original publication.

It’s an almost an unendurable gauntlet unless, as is the case for us, it’s what we do.