Grammatical sparks that kindle umbrage

By , David Holahan is a free-lance writer.

PEOPLE love to hate newspapers. This eternal loathing will ensure the safe passage of print journalism through the era of advancing telecommunications. Reader rage can be kindled by a single misspelled name or word or an editorial bent dating to the pre-Cambrian Epoch. I know - I used to publish a small weekly newspaper.

Weekly folk quickly learn the power of the printed word. One small, uncapitalized letter - or the absence of same - can have terrifying consequences. Several hours past deadline one day, a Mrs. Clara Hogsbreath Farnesworth appeared at the paper's office with a social note. Her son Campbell had (at long last) become a banker in New York City and we were instructed to ''stop the presses.'' Since she was clearly not a woman to be trifled with, we obeyed. But in rushing to satisfy the public's right to know, the typesetter, either in haste or a desire to save ink, omitted the ''n'' from ''banker.'' Poor Campbell underwent an immediate and radical career change. His mother was not amused, even after I suggested that our readers would still assume her son was making gobs of dough.

We committed many more serious errors - newspapers all too often deserve the wrath that is lavished upon them. One week our police reporter transposed the names of the participants in an accident in which one man was arrested for drunk driving. This error was brought to my attention by the maligned sober motorist who charged into my office the morning the paper came out. To emphasize his point he assumed a martial arts pose and proclaimed that he knew karate. ''So, how's the old boy doing?'' I asked, in a feeble attempt to inject some levity into the discussion. Wit, like power, has its limits, I discovered, although fortunately I never found out how proficient a pugilist this irate individual was.

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The correction could not be published for a week, during which time the aggrieved victim was forced to explain repeatedly that it was the paper and not he who had erred.

Some mistakes give birth to fonder memories. Ever so rarely a subscriber emerges from the seething throng to make all those typos, jumbled paragraphs, and run-on sentences seem worth it. Forgotten then are the brigades of hostile garden clubbers and the legions of litigious lawyers.

I don't believe newspapers will ever eliminate such embarrassing and often harmful miscues although they should never become complacent about trying. Both dailies and weeklies are put together by humans in a big hurry. The average daily paper contains as many words as a 350-page novel and lapses are bound to occur. Besides, publications are read (and misread) by humans who would not know how to cope with a perfect ''scurrilous rage.''

In fact, my most traumatic experience in journalism involved a near-perfect subscriber. It occurred one peaceful, post-deadline afternoon while I sat quietly at my desk dangling participles and misplacing modifiers. Suddenly, a stout gentleman marched into my office and stationed himself before me. His sturdy legs were spread wide, his jaw jutted resolutely forth, and fists were clenched purposefully at his side. Looking me in the eye, he bellowed, ''Young man, you're doing a fine job.''

I eventually recovered, but the next issue was a couple of days late.

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