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As a Humanities graduate I have always rather prided myself on my writing style. I have also taken great joy and pleasure in writing, which has resulted in several published books and far too many book chapters and published conference papers – including Charleston – in a very long career. But the joy of writing was always followed by the dread of publication when the red-ink strewn proofs arrived seeking corrections. There were always what felt a humiliatingly large number of grammatical and even spelling errors to be resolved. Proof-readers resembled Charles Dickens’ schoolmaster character Mister Gradgrind who was hard, cold, unforgiving and only concerned with cold facts and numbers rather than the harmonious flow of my prose. But they were an essential part of the process of producing well-researched, articulate and mellifluous compositions.
Following retirement I have much less to say and so much less to publish, but have opened a new avenue of writing by undertaking book reviews for professional and historical journals. In the last few years this has uncovered for me the bewildering puzzle of excellent books from excellent publishers with what seem to be not just a few odd spelling mistakes, but quite egregious mistakes which I have come to assume can only have come from the proof-reading being done by algorithms rather than human beings.
What first alerted me to this was a history of the US Marine Corp in World War 2. Possibly the most iconic image of that war is the photograph of a handful of Marines raising the Stars and Stripes on top of Mount Suribachi as they win the Battle of Iwo Jima. At least that was what I had always called the battle, only to find that the proof-reading algorithm (presumably) uses an American rather than an international geographical dictionary, so that the Marines were not in the Pacific at all but at Iowa (sic!) Jima. What is disturbing is that this cannot really be classified as a spelling mistake or a grammatical mistake since both the words and the grammar are correct in a purely literal sense. Nor is it fake news – or does it become so?
My second favourite is what we used to call a “howler.” Again, grammar and spelling are correct but what is one to make of a nation which replaces its sailing ships with “steal” ships? My third and final example comes from a book on the Crimean War which describes the Charge of the Light Brigade. Entirely wrongly but perhaps appropriately it offers the description of the massacred troopers as Calvary Men rather than cavalry men. I could cite many more such examples which exist in almost every book I have reviewed in the last few years.
I suppose that what I find most surprising and perhaps most depressing is that it seems that even the most reputable of publishers cannot be bothered – or cannot afford? – to have a real human being read over the final draft to make sure that such ridiculous errors are removed. Just as unsettling is how much it undermines the author’s reputation. Did he or she really write that? How much can one trust the rest of the book if these careless (as in couldn’t care less) mistakes have survived?
So has traditional proof-reading really disappeared, or as these just the musings of a grumpy old man who thinks the world is going to the dogs? And is everything covid by these musings?
About the Author: Derek Law is Emeritus Professor of Informatics at the University of Strathclyde. He was chair of the JISC Advance Board until its closure in 2015 and has worked in several British universities and has published and spoken at conferences extensively. He is a regular project evaluator for the EU and has undertaken almost fifty institutional reviews. Most of his work has been to do with the development of networked resources in higher education and with the creation of national information policy and he has been PI on some twenty research projects. Recently he has worked on the future of academic information services. A committed internationalist he has been involved in projects and research in over forty countries and is a former Treasurer of IFLA. He was awarded the Barnard prize for contributions to Medical Informatics in 1993, Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1999, an honorary degree by the Sorbonne in 2000, the IFLA medal in 2003, Honorary Fellowship of CILIP in 2004 and was an OCLC Distinguished Scholar in 2006. He has taught at library schools in Australia, Malawi, Poland and at UCLA.