Proofing, Generosity, and Sic

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January 16, 2022 by libroshombre

A recent online article, “The Language of Climate is Evolving From ‘Change’ to ‘Catastrophe’,” reminded me of the enormous debt I owe all the proofreaders I’ve known during the thirty-eight years I’ve written this weekly column.  Most conscious people have noticed dramatic changes in the weather, like receiving freezing rain in December in Fairbanks atop several feet of snow, but, according to the University of Colorado’s Media and Climate Change, who have scanned news stories from January 2006 to October 2021, the phrase “climate catastrophe” has been used 1.5 times more this year than last.  Usage of “global warming” has dropped 141% and been replaced by “global heating,” and “climate change” fell by 133% with “climate crisis” being used instead. 

Keeping up with such linguistic trends is one duty of proofreaders, who also check for grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, formatting, and consistency.   Proofreaders popped into my mind while watching a documentary about Jimmy Durante, the vaudevillian, comedian, actor, singer, and accomplished pianist, who was also famously generous.  Durante’s nickname was “the Schnozzola” due to his oversized nose, which he was teased about relentlessly as a child.  “I was hurt so deep I made up my mind to never hurt anybody else, no matter what,” he recalled.  “All of us have schnozzels … if not in our faces, then in our character, mind, or habits.”  He added, “My nose isn’t big; I just happen to have a very small  head.”

It’s not Durante’s nose, but his generous nature that made me reflect on proofreaders. Because of his commitment to helping kids, the Fraternal Order of Eagles changed the name of the children’s fund to the Jimmy Durante Children’s Fund, and the Shriners gave him a giant loving cup that was inscribed, “A loving cup for you, Jimmy.  It’s larger than your nose but smaller than your heart.”  Musing on Durante’s generosity and proofreaders made the Roman philosopher Seneca’s comments about generosity and gratitude pop out.  “Anyone who receives a benefit more gladly than he repays it is mistaken … True generosity is measured not by the ends of the act but by the spirit from which it springs … It is better, however, to get no return than to confer no benefits… In order to discover one grateful person, it is worthwhile to make trial of many ungrateful ones.”

So, I hereby profess my abiding gratitude to the scores of proofers who have lent me their minds by ferreting out my typographic boo-boos, which are admittedly legion.  “Proofreading and Its Pitfalls,” a Daily Writing Tips (DWT) article from last February cited English psychology professor Tom Stafford: “we don’t catch errors because we don’t see them. The brain generalizes the simple components of sentences so it can focus on complex tasks, like combining sentences into ideas.”  Perhaps that explains what happened when “Books Range 3,” the most recent compilation of my column, was published (available through the website of the Fairbanks Library Foundation – the libraryfoundation.org – who receive all proceeds).  Three people proofread each column when they were first published in the News Miner, three more proofed them again before being sent to the graphic designer who ran them through a heavy-duty spell checker.  Upon opening the first copy and reading the first sentence, I espied a glaring typo.

DWT pointed out that proofreading and editing aren’t the same.  Editors “select and arrange the contents of a draft that has been completed” while proofers hunt errors.  Here are some proofing tips.  It’s much easier to proof writing that’s printed rather than on a screen. “The ideal approach to proofing is the old-fashioned way, with hard copy and pencil … When proofing from a screen, reading aloud is a good way to catch typos.  Another trick is to read the book from back to front … Although time-consuming, the best way to approach the targets – grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, formatting, and consistency -is one at a time.”

Having a decent vocabulary helps, too. 

A column I submitted several decades ago included a quotation that included another quotation that contained a typo that was followed by the word “sic,” which is Latin for “thus ” and, as most of the publishing world know, “is used in writing after a word that is not spelled or used correctly to show that you have written it that way because you are repeating what someone else said or wrote.”  “Sic” isn’t an obscure term, but it was to the proofreader, who changed it to “sick,” thereby letting readers think I was calling the person whom I was quoting sick.

 Human typos are more forgivable than those produced by robots, and the typos I most despise are produced by optical character recognition (OCR) software.  E-book readers have doubtlessly encountered typographical errors on many pages of their eBooks.  That’s because eBooks are made using OCR programs to scan books and other print documents into machine-readable form.  These programs vary in quality, but even the best make mistakes.  “Despite being addressed by researchers for decades, OCR is still imperfect,” as per  “Assessing the Impact of OCR Errors in Information Retrieval,” a 2020 article in the European Conference on Information Retrieval.  Moreover, “most OCR software provides 98 to 99 percent accuracy at the page level,” according to “Using OCR: How Accurate Is Your Data?”  “This means that in a page of 1,000 characters, 980 to 990 will be accurate,” which leaves room for OCR copies to sometimes confuses an “i” with a “j” or a “t” with an “f.”

 Humans are simply better at it, and for proof look no further than Project Gutenberg (PG) that provides the absolutely cleanest electronic versions of over 42,000 individual titles, and for free.  Instead of scanning great out-of-print books with computers, they utilize human volunteers through “Distributed Proofreaders (Preserving History One Page at a Time).”  Many PG volunteers work on the same book; “volunteers are presented with a scanned page image and the corresponding OCR text on a single web page. This allows the text to be easily compared to the image.”  After correcting the OCR errors, each page is proofread again by two other volunteers, edited, then other volunteers read the completed book and “report anything that disrupts the sense or flow of the book.”

Since my mother, a die-hard, lifelong reader, can no longer do so, I’ve been reading to her.  This week we began Kenneth Grahame’s classic “Wind in the Willows” which I’d purchased for my Kobo e-reader.  Soon we encountered OCR typos, so many in fact, that I switched to the pristine Project Gutenberg version (that includes illustrations) and finished it four days later with nary a typo in sight.  For that benefit I am indeed grateful, which proves, as Seneca pointed out, that “Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.”

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