Highlight your errors: the paradox of the 'strike through' mode

'Strike through mode' has come into its own in the blogosphere and even in print.

Why would someone write something and then draw a line through the words? To express what he almost wrote? To express what he did write but now thinks better of? To say what he thinks while implicitly acknowledging he's stepped over a line? Or all of the above?

The so-called "strike through" mode of type has come into its own as a standard device in opinion journalism – even in print.

The immediacy of blogging is supposed to make up for roughness about the edges of the prose, and sometimes of the facts, too. But conscientious bloggers often update their posts, especially as new light is shed on the events they refer to.

Such updates appear right there with the original text, unlike the corrections of a daily newspaper. So the convention has developed of using strike through mode – a thin horizontal line through the type. It clearly signals what is struck but equally clearly leaves it visible, unlike the heavy blacking out of, say, redacted official transcripts.

But even as this convention of online transparency has developed, something else has developed, too. As New York Times blogger Noam Cohen commented a while back, "[I]n Internet culture, the strike-through has already taken on an ironic function, as a ham-fisted way of having it both ways in type a witty way of simultaneously commenting on your prose as you create it." And when this device appears in print, it's being used exclusively for this kind of ironic effect.

Cohen continued, "Writers on the Internet don't know how good they have it. They can only play around so casually with their own 'corrections' because they are so easy to make."

The paradox is that crossing something out highlights it. The ancient Greek rhetoricians had a whole vocabulary of terms to refer to different forms of "mentioning by not mentioning."

This intentional use of strike through is not to be confused with its use as an editing tool – a way for an editor to mark, "Here's what I'd take out, and here's some language I'd tuck in."

Some editors use strike through in this way because they have such a love-hate relationship with Microsoft Word's track-changes function. In some cases it's just a hate relationship.

Tracking changes is often a good way to communicate. But if the editorial process is emotionally fraught, or involves people who are not fully at home on the computer, or both, track-changes can send editors round the bend.

This is especially true when they see the changes appear in a different format from what they're used to. "I don't want to see any more of those bubbles!" an otherwise mild-mannered colleague once all but screamed at me sometime back.

Before there were bubbles, though, there was parchment. My favorite discovery about the deeper meaning of the strike through trend has been that in centuries past, scribes struck through passages in red ink to call attention to them – just as students today mark up their textbooks with highlighters. An image of a page of the Domesday Book is available online to illustrate this point.

I'm not sure where this fits on the postmodern irony scale. But the effect is striking.

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