Essay: To Err is Humane by David Frank

A rueful lament on the unfortunate ubiquity of mistakes and misinformation.

It happens. You pick up a book and read it with keen interest. It’s a fine read . . . except . . . except when you come across obvious mistakes.

I have been around publishers and printers most of my life. Probably I read way too carefully, but I can’t help noticing things. Not just typographical errors but misused words and even outright misinformation.

I won’t mention the names of any authors here. Surely it is enough for a writer to have delivered a fully realized manuscript. They don’t always see the small problems. Let the publishing professionals take their turn.

Spellcheck programs, useful as they may be, can’t do the job. They are easily tricked by the usual suspects. There’s to and too, it’s and its, then and than, led and lead, principles and principals, even perpetuate and perpetrate. Predominate shows up with surprising frequency as an adjective (it’s a verb – the adjective is predominant).

Disinterest is a discussion all its own. The folks at the Canadian Oxford Dictionary say diplomatically that disinterest is a disputed term – but they also add that the primary meaning refers to impartiality and lack of bias. It can be confusing, if not disappointing, to see how often disinterest is used to mean lack of interest.  

Some gaffes are more unusual, even vaguely amusing. The landscape is not sewn with pine. Church bells do not peel. You don’t get hit by a tow-by-four, or lose site of a mandate. You don’t usually bear your wounds to people, or peddle your legs in the air. Or reign in spending, unless perhaps you are a monarch. Some people are of Irish descent, and others are just decent people. In New Orleans there is a difference between levies and levees. And wherever you go, a Visa card is not the same thing as a visa.

There can be good material out there for English classes. One of my daughter’s high school teachers had a bulletin board where they posted clippings from the local newspaper to illustrate common usage mistakes. Some papers are better sources than others, but the use of automated proofing seems to be making the problem worse, even in the high-prestige press.

The most alarming errors involve misinformation, mostly when it has to do with context. We tend to assume that novelists can be relied upon to describe social landscapes and historical settings accurately. But when an author is focused on plot and character, the background leaves a good deal of room for misinformation.

These are just random samples, from some relatively recent Canadian novels. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police did not exist as such in 1912 (they were still the Royal North-West Mounted Police); nor did they operate in eastern Canada at the time. There was no air mail service before the First World War, and the United Church did not exist in 1914 (it was founded in 1925). The Parti Québécois was not in power in Québec at the time of the October Crisis in 1970, far from it. The clam-shaped City Hall towers in Toronto are definitely not built of granite; if they were, they would fall down.

Meanwhile, the old VW Beetle was famous for putting the engine over the rear wheels; but when it was relaunched in the 1980s, designers put the engine in the front. Not so in one recent novel, where the trunk is still in front. Also, the Province of Ontario has never started or ended at 74 degrees latitude, a claim repeated several times in another novel. That would put the boundary north of Baffin Island. A recent memoir by an author who certainly must know better tells us that in 1980 Newfoundland and Labrador had a population of 330,000 people – way off by about 250,000 souls; maybe he meant households . . . but that’s not what it says. I feel badly about all three of these as I liked the books very much, even with their occasionally unreliable narrators.

Is there room here to mention one American example, on the grounds that there are references to Canada in a novel that was recently adapted as a television miniseries? We are told that in 1942 a foldout map of North America shows the Commonwealth [sic] of Canada and its ten [sic] provinces.

Publishing is a team production. Besides a critical eye, a general background in history, geography and literature is good preparation for editorial work. Occasionally authors thoughtfully acknowledge that they have been saved from (undisclosed) errors by the timely intervention of copy editors and proofreaders.

Others may help too. Once when I was supervising a book production, I asked my nine-year-old son to look over the page proofs while I was talking to the printer. The book was more than 400 pages long, but my son quickly discovered that two pages were in the wrong order. The printer seemed unsurprised and happily made the correction.

It is true there are examples of books out there replete with uncorrected errors, which is no fun at all. One of my students was shocked to discover acres of typos in a prizewinning scholarly book that we read for a graduate seminar. How could this happen, she wondered. Possibly, I volunteered, they printed the wrong set of proofs.

Actually, and I know this from experience, what is remarkable is how many mistakes do not make their way into print. Publishers’ files may disclose evidence of the subdued chaos behind the production of a book, but these days old drafts and proofs are more likely to be treated as recycling matter than as archival resources. Indeed, now that so much editorial work is done on-screen, records of the work-process disappear in a flash.

Meanwhile, I can’t help but keep a watchful eye. In the interest of disclosure, I should add that at least two of my own books contain typographical errors. I can’t explain how this happened. I am comforted to believe there are only one or two in each book. I also know there is a wrong date in one of those books, though it is correct on another page.

But then I also remember the time I asked an assistant to read a set of proofs. Find the mistake, I said, there is always at least one. He could not do it. Try again, I said, assuring him that there are always mistakes in the proofs. He still couldn’t find one. I read the proofs too and didn’t find anything to fix. It does happen.

David Frank is a professor emeritus in Canadian history at the University of New Brunswick. He is a former editor of Acadiensis: Journal of the History of the Atlantic Region.