Where errors come from

I recently wrapped up a 75,000 word manuscript (on the linguistics of apology). Along the way, the work ballooned up to 100,000 words, slimmed down to 65,000 and finally landed at a fighting weight of 75,000. It’s a long story—the length of the manuscript, that is.

As I got ready to submit it to my editor, I asked a few colleagues to give it a read and also, with the aid of an SOU Research Grant hired professional writing major (now graduate) Jennifer Marcellus to prepare a draft index and to proof and copyedit the text. And I reread and proofed everything twice myself. Along the way, Jennifer and the other two readers found errors, typos, infelicities and inconsistencies. All of them found different things and what I had thought was a relatively clean manuscript turned out to still have a lot more mess than I would have liked. I felt bad for a moment, but then I heard Francine Prose read from a forthcoming novel. She mentioned, hyperbolically I hope, that she had revised it 500 times and was still finding errors. Her fact checker, whom she refered to as “the happy French graduate student” found more and more errors: a museum that didn’t open until two years after it appears in the story; a bridge in the wrong town.

Hearing Prose’s confession shifted my attention from chagrin to curiousity. What sort of errors did I make, and where? Here’s what I found:

    Simple slips—Typing Columbia rather than Colombia or Morse rather than Marsh, or in some cases typing gibberish rather than words.

    Some are things that I’ve just mislearned: how to spell descendent, for example, or in another context Genghis Kahn.

    After a particularly hard section, I sometimes run out of vigilance and write a relatively simple section in a cursory fashion. This is connected to what I call getting lost in the weeds. Sections that deal with theoretical ideas and concepts tend to have more drift and flab than sections that a relatively narrative in nature.

    In the process of adding, cutting and shortening sentences, I found myself breaking things up, reversing the order and so on, but then moving on without rechecking the text. It’s correct in my head but not on the paper. If I write “I find myself forgetting” and simplify it to “I forget” I may forget to change the participle, leaving “I forgetting.” Sigh.

    My advice to students about things like numbers, apostrophes, and Oxford commas is to be consistent. Sometimes though I forget what I’ve decided, and am consistently inconsistent. There are two parts to this: Changing my mind and forgetting what I’ve decided. An Oxford comma seems too heavy in one place and just right in another. Spelling out numbers seems right in subject position but clumsy in the predicate of long sentences. What looks good in one place seems bad elsewhere. I found myself changing my mind but not having the patient to go back and make everything else consistent. And sometimes I forget what I’ve decided—Caps in titles? Quotes in epigraphs?

    There are some aspects of style that I’ve just got a preference on. I prefer but to however. And I’m increasingly with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., on the semicolon. I use the first person to make a point a particular way and signal to readers that it’s just me talking, not my authorial voice. And there are some aspects of style I just can’t keep straight. How many periods in ellipses at the end of a sentence? Do you spell out up to 100 or up to 9?

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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