In the old days, reporters would complain that however much care they took in crafting their words, they were ultimately at the mercy of assorted members of the printing trade.
Between the lines, editors serve a thankless but vital vigil
In the old days, reporters would complain that however much care they took in crafting their words, they were ultimately at the mercy of assorted members of the printing trade. How they longed for the day when no proofreader, through incompetence or cussedness, could impose spelling mistakes, grammatical horrors and blank spaces or garble where there ought to have been words.
As the computer age dawned, it seemed only a matter of time before their wish would be granted. Wiser heads were shaken in the knowledge that reporters should never be trusted with direct input, that is to say the ability to write for the page without intervention by those trained to scrutinise their efforts. The wiser heads, or their owners, were right. The proofreaders, by and large, departed. But reporters still need someone to look over their prose. Unfashionable as it may seem in these times of hardship confronting the industry, the streamlining of the printing process means that the role is best adopted by what the British call sub-editors.
It does not, in fact, matter what name we give them. The Americans and Canadians refer to copy editors and also have revise journalists whose duties include basic checking of the written word. All that does matter is that what reporters write does not sail unseen on to the printed page. This is not to say that reporters deliberately litter their articles with breaches of grammatical convention, poor construction and eccentric spelling. It is more a recognition that even the most conscientious among them is capable of being distracted in one way or another and cannot always see the imperfections of his or her own work until it is too late. The better sub-editors may, by tradition, be grumpy and world-weary; they are also born with a gift to detect the written follies of others.
The National, I am relieved to say for reasons that will become clear, does employ people who try to ensure that what appears in the paper is correct and are especially alert to the evolution of the slip of the pen into the misplaced keyboard stroke. Although I have concentrated on journalism, this evolution affects other walks of life, too. I certainly believe typographical errors have become more commonplace as e-mails have largely replaced handwritten letters.
With the immediacy and attraction of modern communication comes the temptation to press the Send key without a quick look back over the text. It is a shaming fact that any e-mail I send without first checking for errors will inevitably contain several. I am a two-finger typist and kick myself for never having done anything about it. But touch typists are human, too; as an editor, I have lost count of the instances of sloppiness submitted by touch-typing colleagues, however senior or talented.
Then there are the words that seem to be right when written, but are in fact completely wrong. In last week's column, I mentioned the "I before E except after C" principle and gave, as examples of exceptions, veil and seize. One small problem arose: I thought seize but wrote seige. In the cold light of day, I know perfectly well that the word I did not want is siege and is therefore no exception to the rule. Yet even though I aspire to exemplary conscientiousness, seige is how it left my keyboard. Thus it would have remained had no one been at the other end to spare my blushes. The lesson is plain: one pair of eyes is seldom enough.
Man will perhaps, one day, devise an electronic tool capable of entering the writer's thought process as well as identifying basic misspellings. Until then, we should settle with thanks for the grumpy old sub-editor. Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org