To air is human, so give us a brake

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Human beings are prone to mating mistakes. That should be oblivious to even the most causal observer.

Did you catch the miscues? The word "mating" looks like "making," as do "obvious" and "oblivious," "causal" and "casual." It's easy making mistakes in any language, but in English it's almost avoidable. Oops, left out the "un-."

Then again, the notion of "mating mistakes" is an intriguing one, and one of the reasons we make so many is that we're often so "oblivious." Some mistakes, meanwhile, give birth to new terms. A "causal observer," for instance, might apply to a TV cameraman at a protest rally.

Spell-check is no help. These are all real words, spelled (but not used) correctly.

Welcome to journalism, or as we refer to it here, "Adventures in English," where making mistakes is easier than you can possibly imagine. We clean up 98 percent each week before the paper gets printed. The 2 percent are the ones our eagle-eyed readers sink their talons into and triumphantly hold under our noses as proof of our lack of professionalism.

But it's not easy to be perfect when one or two misplaced letters can so dramatically alter a sentence. "Officers patrolled Madison Street" is one thing. "Officers paroled Madison Street" is quite another.

Are such mistakes forgivable "as long as you're processional in your approach"? As an editor, one can safely assume the writer meant "professional" — unless they're writing about the Catholic Church hierarchy, where a well-appointed procession covers a multitude of sins — or attempts to anyway.

An editor never knows what he'll run into, week to week. Scanning eyes screech to an abrupt halt when you discover that "Police stooped Torres ..." Sounds like a civil rights violation. Or when the police department hires someone to "train offices" instead of "officers."

The imagination strains to picture "Outdoorsmen who backpacked in the dessert" (sounds messy) or an entrepreneur who "made a push to expand into Chicago's food deserts." The word "desert," in fact, has three distinct meanings: an arid land, the verb to abandon, and something you deserve. Is dessert high on your list of just deserts?

Consider the unholy trinity, palate/pallet/palette — do you taste with it, stack something on top of it, or use it to paint from? Guess the odds that any of these words will be used correctly on the first try. Or the even unholier trinity: there/their/they're.

Will our newly elected leaders "play dividends"? Is the proof in the "putting" (which actually makes more sense than "pudding")? Was the class discussing Muslins or Muslims? Was Jerry Vainisi really the team's vice president and general "manger"? (Well, at least he wasn't accused of being a "vice resident.") Were they really serving hors "devours" at the party? (That not only makes culinary sense, it's also a lot easier to spell than d'ouvres.) Was she a morning person or a mourning person?

There is very little difference in spelling between sacred and scared, complies and compiles, noting and nothing, parish and perish, pouring and poring, united and untied, singers and signers, trail and trial, three and there, reticent and recent, sessions and secessions, Mach 22 and March 22, premier and premiere, heroine and heroin, public and pubic, but there's a world of difference in meaning. You don't want to call an ex-patriate an ex-patriot. Or maybe I'm just splitting hairs (hares? herrs?).

Is your son entering collage or college? Do you hold a wrap-up after the discussion and a warp-up before? A motion censor, presumably, functions much differently from a motion sensor. If someone's name is Ruberry, they won't be happy if you identify them as "Rubbery," which we almost did, though I'll bet it wouldn't have been the first time.

Editing can be a harrowing experience. You never know what might slip through. On deadline, normally competent writers suffer brain cramps. "They are actually doing more harm then good." Did they do harm first, followed by good or did they do more harm than good?

Were there "four artists" or were they "fur artists"? Were they welcoming a "gust artist" (specializing in wind creations, I suppose) or a "guest artist"? Did they celebrate the eminent or imminent arrival of spring? This year, spring never seemed imminent, but it's — sorry, its — arrival in the last couple of weeks certainly felt "eminent."

Everyone knows the rule is "i" before "e" except after "c," but one of our writers split the difference: "receieved." Would you catch that under the pressures of deadline?

All I'm saying is, cut us some slack (unless you're a tailor, in which case, cut us some slacks). Don't criticize us for sloppy editing, then write that we should "hone in" on our Ps and Qs. We are constantly honing our editing skills so we can home in (like a pigeon) on perfection.


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