Major and minor

In my own modest way, I chimed in to support Jan Freeman’s blog post pointing out that it’s/its mistakes and similar slips are commonly errors of spelling, not errors of knowledge or thought.

You can figure out what ensued, right? The first comment surmised that I am ignorant of “what the kids have to say today on the internet.” Kids. Then “I want very much to experience all my errors as moral failings and encourage others to do likewise!” Someone, evidently British, imagined that I was slandering Sir Thomas Browne. And somebody quoted bloodthirsty Lynne Truss, that people who confuse it’s and its “deserve to be struck by lightening, [sic] hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.”*

After your deep cleansing breath, please consider what I was actually saying. Neither Jan Freeman nor I suggested that these slips were not errors or that anything goes. We said that they are minor errors, not major ones. As minor errors, they look sloppy, and they annoy some readers—usually the readers whose allegiance you want. Deidre Edgar of the Los Angeles Times points out in an article on complaints from readers how irritating these minor flaws can be, how distracting. And I, a copy editor for more than three decades, have been employed to clean up texts for publication.

What the Trussites, as well as some of my colleagues on copy desks, overlook is that exclusive focus on these minor errors, granting them disproportionate weight, allows major errors free passage. It is possible for a text to be grammatically impeccable, orthographically correct, observant of every jot and tittle of AP style, and still be opaque, false, or paralytically boring.

Taking the big key from the desk, I open the heavy wooden door and descend the cold, damp stone steps to the vault, to hoist up once more a classic example of what focus on the minor to the exclusion of the major can produce. This sentence, the opening sentence of an article, appeared in this form in The Baltimore Sun:

Women’s rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday took the first step toward appealing a ruling that overturned a landmark law denying city liquor licenses to private clubs that discriminate.

You’ll observe that, apart from the journalistic inability to place the adverb of time where it belongs in ordinary English syntax, this sentence is grammatical. It is factually accurate. And it is an offense to the reader. Compared to this, an it’s/its slip looks like the minor error it in fact is.


*Those of you who are unaware of how thoroughly Ms. Truss has been discredited would do well to read Louis Menand’s devastating New Yorker review of her best-seller.



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