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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 29 October, 2002, 12:19 GMT
Bringing mistakes to book
Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing must wait for a reprint to correct errors

Doris Lessing has complained of falling standards in the publishing world after finding mistakes in her latest novel. Despite technological advances, why do clangers still appear?
There's a doozie in Dickens. A gaffe in Golding's Lord of the Flies. A series of slip-ups in Sherlock Holmes, and howlers in Harry Potter.

Yet who could say that these are shoddy novels? A mistake here, an inconsistency there do not a bad book make.

Harry Potter
Harry Potter's popularity hasn't suffered
Doris Lessing, for one, does not approve. The 83-year-old novelist has complained that her latest book contains errors; mistakes that were not picked up in the editing process.

Ms Lessing puts this down to cost-cutting and job losses in the publishing world. Instead of the "dragons" of yesteryear, whose sole task it was to tighten prose and spot wayward characterisation, she says today's overworked editors merely make suggestions about punctuation.

But mistakes are nothing new, be it a confused plot line or a typographical error, the likes of which rendered one of the 10 Commandments "Thou shalt commit adultery" in a 1631 edition of the King James Bible.

Errors get through in other media too. Witness the Guardian's corrections column, so renowned for its entertainment value that the broadsheet put out a book of favourite mistakes in 2000.

It has been known for the odd spelling mistake to appear in articles on BBC News Online. The beauty of the internet is that once a slip-up has been spotted, it's never wrong for long - simply correct and republish. In newspapers and books, however, an error is there to stay.

Curse of spell check

Automation has done little to help.

Text messaging
Do u rit in txt?
Just as calculators have been blamed for the youth of today's inability to do long division, computer programs have been linked to falling standards in spelling and grammar.

The rise of hurriedly written missives, such as e-mails and text messages, has played a part; so too have the myriad rules and exceptions in the language itself.

Simply running spell check over a document will pick up any misspelled words (so long as these are gobbledegook rather than real words) and any basic grammatical errors.

Sherlock Holmes and sidekick Dr Watson
Sherlock's slips may be because it was a serial
Such checks may be sufficient for a report, an essay, a business letter or e-mail, but editing a book requires considerably more finesse.

A sentence construction highlighted as incorrect by a spell check program may in fact suit the tone of the novel; but an adjective inadvertently repeated within the same paragraph will not be flagged up. Nor will a character inexplicably changing eye colour between one chapter and the next.

Don't spell, freespel

One solution could be to free up the rules on spelling, says Richard Wade, a retired broadcaster who is campaigning to make English easier to read and write. After all, more than one-tenth of English words are not spelled the way they sound.

Germany has already led the way with its own controversial spelling reforms aimed at making German a simpler language to learn.

Dan Quayle spelled potato as potatoe
Dan Quayle, a hero for those who identify with Doris Lessing's editors?
On his website, Freespeling.com, Mr Wade suggests simple shortcuts such as dropping the silent "b" in "debt" and replacing the "ph" in photography with "f".

His goal is to allow users to vote on how to spell tricky or illogical words, and assemble the results into an online dictionary.

After an initial round of voting earlier this year, his supporters chose new spellings for 15 words including "frend" and "hite" for friend and height. A second round of voting is now under way on words such as through and embarrassment. Polling closes on 30 November.

"We should be working towards a consensus to spell for the comprehension, clarity and comfort of the reader," Mr Wade says.

Purists like Ms Lessing beg to differ. Rules is rules, after all.


Have you spotted any classic errors? Let us know using the form below.

I work in children's books. I caught a potentially embarrassing misspelling of 'peninsula' before a book was to go out.
Jennifer Way, US

One of J D Robb's books places Cornwall to the far north of London, when you couldn't get much further south. Tom Clancy's latest has people travelling through Elephant and Castle station to get to Victoria - somewhat difficult. It also refers to a pint as 16 ounces - in UK we give 20 ounces. Elizabeth George had travellers going to Yorkshire from Waterloo station.
Jean Davis, UK

A classic is on every Tube train - promising a fine for any person who fails on demand to show a valid ticket for their entire journey. Personally, I would prefer to show a ticket, valid for my entire journey - otherwise my arm would get sore towards the end of the trip.
Andrew Reynolds, UK

It was in a romantic, historical novel that the printer should have set "she peer-ed at her reflection in the mirror", peered being hyphenated onto the next line. The 'r' was omitted.
Nigel Rees, Briton in USA

Having left the publishing industry several years ago, I know what pressure editorial staff are under to churn products out as quickly as possible. I blame the big publishing companies for increasing workloads, making it impossible to quality control books/magazines/brochures etc before being printed.
Katrina, UK

At Best Books Online we do not rely on spell checks but the good old fashioned way of reading a book three times, using a dictionary, and most importantly using experienced people who learned how to write themselves.
Graham Smith, England

When JRR Tolkien first published The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, well-meaning publishers frequently "corrected" his spelling. Early versions of both books have instances of 'elfin' not 'elven', 'dwarfs' not 'dwarves', and so on.
Benjamin Craig, UK
[Tolkien intended to spell these words in this way as his invented term.]

Come Christmas, those of us assembling carol sheets need to look out for the inevitable spell check corrections - Away in a Manager?
Revd Bill Young, UK

I was reading The World's Most Dangerous Places and found dozens of spell check created errors - someone had been convicted of 'aggregated assault'!
Tracey Houston, Canada

The spell check/predictive text on Nokia phones has a classic - if you put 'Smirnoff' it suggests 'poisoned' instead.
Andy, UK

My favourite came from the Guardian years ago. It was a correction. I can't remember the guy's name but you'll get the picture. It read: "Last week we incorrectly stated that Mr Bloggs was a defective in the police force. He is of course a detective in the police farce."
Humphrey Appleton, UK

A spell check howler I came across as a newspaper sub was in a planning story when John Selwyn Gummer was environment secretary. It rendered Gummer as Gomorrah. Suitable, given his Synod connection.
Deborah Shrewsbury, England

At my grammar school, a sign was proudly displayed for a time in the early 1980s that said "Chislehurst & Sidcup Grammer School".
Terence Baker, US (English)

The spell checker in the previous version of MS Word disliked the 'worldwide', suggesting 'world-wide' as an alternative. 'World-wide' was considered incorrect by the grammar checker which suggested 'worldwide' as an alternative, which of course...
Mr T, UK

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