The voice on the message was that of an older lady, and she was not happy.
"You have hyphenated the word reach in the first paragraph of a story on your front page. Does your newspaper still have any proofreaders?”
Of course I called her back. The grammar and usage complaints are forwarded to me—usually accompanied by the question “Do you still have copy editors at your paper?” or “Have any of your editors been to college?”—and I dutifully respond to all of them.
I explained to the lady that she was absolutely right, that the computer program that does our typesetting sometimes hyphenates words inappropriately, and that though we do proofread we had missed an obvious error. It doesn’t do to attempt to evade responsibility.
She was not unkind, particularly after I explained that I had delayed responding to her because I had taken time off to see my new grandchild in Chicago, but she was firm. She had been the editor of her high school newspaper, and that had trained her to be a careful and scrupulous reader. She noticed things in her reading.
All in all, it was a civil, even pleasant, conversation, but she started me thinking.
When she came to that error at the very beginning of the article, she had stopped. She had not immediately recognized the word as hyphenated and had to take a moment to puzzle it out. And she called the paper to complain about the error, and some relieved soul on the city desk had put her onto me.
But what she did not say was whether she had read the rest of the article.
What many publications, including now the august New York Times, have concluded is that the sort of details that have mattered to copy editors do not matter to readers: typographical errors, minor lapses or inconsistencies in grammar and usage, petty obstacles to understanding. No big thing. But the lady who took the trouble to call The Sun had stopped, distracted.
Here’s the thing. It does not take much to distract a reader: what P.G. Wodehouse called “a great slab of prose at the start,” an obvious solecism, an inconsistency, any of the things that copy editors look for that might break a reader’s concentration, because, once broken, that concentration may not return to the article at hand.
Losing the reader is one of the things we used to be employed to prevent, along with plagiarism, fabrication, libel, and utter folly. So go bare. See what it gets you.