What the sub-editor saw

Hello, I’m Cathy, and I’m a sub-editor (scourge of the newsroom, pedant and dictionary botherer). As such, my job is to spot inaccuracies, correct typos, clean up grammar and write headlines.

I spend most of my time working at the broadsheets, where the copy is of very high quality. Even so, there are still plenty of opportunities for words to go crazy and cause mayhem, as they have a way of doing.

I’ll be keeping an eye out while I’m on my rounds, and reporting in to Emphasis from time to time on the mistakes I find. After all, what better way to learn than from the mistakes of others? (Far less painful than one’s own!)

This week

From triplets to tautology, the wrong Teresa to the wrong Labour politician, here’s a round-up of a few corkers I spotted this week.

You’ve probably heard the nursery rhyme ‘As I was going to St Ives, I met a man with seven wives; each wife held seven sacks, each sack had seven cats …’ Well, I was reminded of that when I spotted this sentence, which features a common tautology (tautology: using multiple words to describe the same thing).

Farhana Shaukat, a mother of three triplets, gave a clue as to why the pupils were queuing up outside. “They get bored with the holidays,” she said.

Three triplets? So how many were going to St Ives – three or nine? ‘Triplets’ only has one meaning: three children born at the same time. The addition of ‘three’ is unnecessary, but surprisingly common (along with the other favourite ‘two twins’). It’s not a big mistake, by any means. But it’s worth avoiding even if only for the reason that some stickler will always pick you up on it otherwise (erm, yes, that’s me).

Health risk

Moving on swiftly, we go from an extraneous word to a missing word – and this time, an important one. This is a good example of how one word can completely change the meaning of a sentence. And it’s so easy to do, especially when you’re in full flow and thinking faster than you can write. The following was very nearly published as the headline to a piece on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. Spot the missing word.

World Trade Centre attacks left rescuers and bystanders with raised risk of physical and mental health, Lancet reveals

It’s not only missing words that can cause mischief – letters can be equally troublesome. The following sentence has a letter missing. Can you spot it?

The inquiry, ordered by Teresa May, is being carried out by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary.

It’s an ‘h’. The home secretary is a Theresa, not a Teresa. ‘Pah!’ you say. ‘That’s just a typo, nothing to sweat over.’ And yes, that’s fair. But a ‘Teresa May’ does exist, and she has a profession that our Theresa probably wouldn’t appreciate being associated with. Ahem. (She’s a porn star.)

Let’s play spot the letter again, in a similarly scandalous vein. This time, though, you’re looking for an extra one, not a missing one. Ready?

This month a 51-year-old officer will answer police bail after being arrested on suspicion of misconduct in a public officer over alleged unauthorised leaks from the Operation Weeting phone-hacking inquiry.

Misconduct in a whaaat? Madre mia! That should, needless to say, read ‘misconduct in a public office’.

Brown, in the farmhouse, with the …

Okay, that’s more than enough smut. Back to serious things. This final example is one of those mistakes that is terrifyingly easy to make when you’ve been working on something at length and suddenly your brain turns bad and attacks you. This came at the end of a very long and detailed story on Alistair Darling’s new book, in which the words ‘Brown’ and ‘Darling’ occurred many times over, and always in the right place until …

That weekend, Brown reveals that he held a secret meeting with Miliband at a farmhouse in Essex.

Grammatically, it’s fine. No typos, no dodgy apostrophes. So what’s the problem? Simply that it’s wrong. It was Darling, not Brown, who revealed and attended the secret meeting – and the scary truth is that no spellcheck can pick up that kind of (potentially libellous) mistake.

The moral of the story? Proofread, proofread and proofread. Ideally, ask someone else to proofread for you – and don’t feel bad if they pick up errors. None of the mistakes I’ve mentioned above were made through ignorance or stupidity – simply through human error. We all make ‘em. The best protection is knowing it.

This is a guest blog post by Cathy Relf, a freelance sub-editor.

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