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Perils Of Proofreading
by Alec Mcewen

CAN THE DEVELOPMENT of Canadian writers be trusted? In a one-page flyer announcing the two authors who would speak at its 1991 annual spring luncheon at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, the Writers` Development Trust managed to misspell Mexico, published, and Saint John, add a gratuitous article to David Adams Richards`s Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace, and end a sentence with two periods, one on each side of a quotation mark. Something better might have been expected in an advertisement for a meal costing $40. A firmer editorial hand could also have avoided errors in the Spring 1991 issue of Canadian Author & Bookman, where a Vancouver writer who has had "well over five decades of practice in which to perfect his craft" is complimented on his knack of selecting the mot juste: So when Bill expresses his dissatisfaction with his own choice of the word "vociferously" to describe his family`s reading habits, one can`t resist asking him how he, as a short story writer, goes about finding the "right" word. Bill, whose relatives presumably read abundantly rather than noisily, is quoted as replying, "The word has to be precise ...But then I suppose every form of creativity has its own straight-jacket." Another British Columbia writer in the same issue, for whom, according to the magazine`s notes on contributors, "writing is easy;" is allowed to use the tautologous comprising of, in apparent unawareness that comprise means consist of. Yet the world would be a more sombre place without the inadvertent humour caused by typographical glitches and gremlins that evade a proofreader`s notice. Perhaps the Globe and Mail`s classified advertisements department thought the Irish woman who, in February 1985, used its Employment Wanted column to seek an "au-pere position with a family in a rurul area" was looking for a sugar daddy in a locality frequented by New Zealand owls, instead of a home in the country where she might receive hospitality in exchange for light domestic services. Imperfect familiarity with the nuances of modern `English usage may have led a hotel laundry at Kano in northern Nigeria to choose an adjective with an etymologically correct, but now uncommon, application for its written disclaimer of responsibility for "fugitive colours;" apparently under the impression that this would exculpate the cleaners if the materials failed to hold their dyes. A printed form in my room at the same establishment, where I stayed for a short time in 1989, requested guests to write their complaints and then "drop this slip on the General Manager;` thereby provoking the foolish temptation to hunt for a suitable stone around which the paper could be wrapped, to permit its more accurate direction toward the invited target. Sometimes a printing aberration arises from mischievous intent, not mere carelessness. Heather Robertson, in the September 1980 issue of Saturday Night, mentioned a reporter for the Winnipeg Tribune who chose the facetious headline "You Should Have Seen Oliver Twist" for the Christmas Eve account of a man named Oliver whose wife had just stabbed his vital parts. Following a request for its alteration, the headline was rewritten and sent to the composing room, where a vigilant hand intercepted it in time to prevent its appearance in print. The altered wording was "She Decked the Halls with Balls of Ollie ." Far less fortunate was Britain`s staid newspaper, The Times. Its January 1882 report of a lengthy speech by Sir William Harcourt appeared to attribute to the distinguished Home Secretary the statement that "he felt inclined for a bit of fucking." Even Sir William, whose speeches were later described by the Dictionary of National Biography as "illuminated by witty epigrams;" may have failed to find any humour in the unauthorized tampering with his oratorical record. For a few days the embarrassed editor stayed silent, possibly hoping that the taboo word would escape his readers` detection, but he then published an abject apology, with the promise of investigation leading to expected punishment for the perpetrator of such outrage. Evidently no such success resulted, for six months later the mysterious typesetter invaded The Times again, in an advertisement for a book, Every-Day Life in our Public Schools, among the purported contents of which was "A Glossary of some Words used by Henry Irving in his disquisition upon fucking, which is in Common Use in those Schools." Henry Irving survived the incident; the great actor was offered a knighthood in the following year, an honour he did not accept until 1895. Perhaps the prankster struck no more, for The Times suffered no similar assault on its decorum. The two interpolated lines containing the prohibited obscenity were expunged from revised editions of the issues in which they first appeared.

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