Hoo boy, did I goof. In a piece I recently wrote about commas for the online New York Times, I made a mistake that was seized on and adumbrated by Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The Awl, Craig Silverman’s “Regret the Error” blog and The Huffington Post, whose headline was “Is This the Funniest Newspaper Correction Ever?” (I was gratified that most of the comments agreed with the person who said, “No it’s not really that funny at all.”) I provide no links, except for Regret the Error, which is a very entertaining and instructive site devoted to journalistic errors and corrections. Otherwise, if you’re interested, you can find it all yourself.
The episode got me to mentally reviewing my own Greatest Misses, a loop tape that is mercifully not very long but is definitely cringe-inducing. At my first job, as an editor with a small magazine called The New Leader, a piece came in that referred to James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake, no apostrophe. This was way before the Internet, and our library, as I recall, consisted of a battered dictionary and a one-volume Columbia Encyclopedia I’d originally gotten as a bar mitzvah present. I can still visualize the royal blue cover and the Joyce entry, which gave the title of the novel as Finnegan’s Wake. I duly inserted the apostrophe, it ran that way in the magazine, and I quickly found out that both the encyclopedia and I were wrong wrong wrong.
Later I worked as a freelance fact-checker for various magazines. The protocol was to underline every fact an article asserted or implied, using a green pencil for the ones we were able to verify and a red one for the “facts” that were incorrect. It was sobering and instructive to cast your eye over a fact-checked typescript from even the more careful and experienced writers: There was red all over the place. This suggested to me that the human capacity for carelessness, mindlessness, incorrect assumption and conclusion-leaping is estimable.
My own blunders definitely have borne the lesson out. Early into my next job, for New Jersey Monthly magazine, I was asked to stay late one night and write captions for a photo spread about the Delaware River. Next to a picture that showed some white-feathered creatures hanging out along the banks, I came up with “Delaware ducks: watching the river flow.” My pride at the alliteration and Dylan reference was punctured about a week later when a letter came into the office containing a cutting of the page with the photo. On it, someone had written, with admirable concision and in perfect Palmer Method cursive: “I believe those are geese.”
At a later job, as a film critic, I committed what I think of as my most embarrassing mistake, because it’s just so dumb. When I should have written “Dorothy Lamour,” I instead put down “Hedy Lamarr.” There are a few other goofs on my tape, too, but I’ll spare you (and me) the details.
Except for one, because it sums up to me the conclusion that no matter how hard you try, it probably just isn’t possible to eliminate all mistakes. Researching and writing a history of The New Yorker, I tried to be extra careful when it came to fact, grammar, and yes, commas, because the magazine is famous for its scrupulousness in such matters. The book, About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, is almost 500 pages long. A few people took issue with my interpretation of events they had been a party to, but as far as straight-up factual errors were concerned, nothing was coming up. Until one day, when I got a letter pointing to a passage about, ironically, New Yorker fact-checkers. Talking about their doggedness in rooting out the truth, I observed that they pursued it with a “Canadian Mounty-like determination.”
The singular for Mounties, the letter pointed out, is Mountie.
Who knew? More to the point, who could have possibly thought to look that up?
I’m curious to hear from readers. What’s the most memorable error you have read and/or published?
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