Proofreading in age of spell-checker: Irish Times letter

Madam, – How is it that computers, despite their remarkable skills in unravelling complexities at the touch of a button, can pollute pages of print in our newspapers with typos, lapses in syntax, spelling and elementary grammatical gaffes?

I was reminded of this curious anomaly when reading the appreciation of Michael Adams in your edition of March 2nd. I did not know Michael Adams, a publisher of academic works, but the obituarist’s stylish piece revealed a lovable man dedicated to his authors, a man of rare integrity in his private and professional life.

Recalling his dedication, the following line appears: “which led him personally to spend hundreds of hours pouring over authors’ proofs to ensure deadlines were met and books saw the light of day”. Well, whether it was tea, water, alcohol or whatever liquid happened to be conveniently nearby, a comical cartoon emerges of a deranged proof reader. And in this context it’s a regrettable error. “Pore” is the word, of course.

Most of us know that, so does it matter? Yes, it does. For it is yet another example of the frequency with which such errors appear, not only in newspapers but in books and important documents (such as research reports) and in contexts where they cannot be so easily identified or, more seriously, can mislead. They are a manifestation of a developing decline in the standards of communication by print, of an unwarranted belief that the information supplied by the computer does not need checking.

One of the problems, it seems to me, is that computers cannot distinguish between homophones and must be controlled by a user who can. A homophone is a word having the same sound as another but of different meaning or origin: complementary, complimentary; principal, principle; pair, pear, pare. The newspaper tipster who credited his horse with exceptional speed up the strait (straight) was hard done by. The playgoers pictured watching a theatrical performance were unlikely to be flattered by the caption which described their faces as wrapped (rapt). Both reports were published on the same day.

But is it reasonable to blame the computer? IBM’s Louis Gerstner perhaps supplied the answer when speaking on the need for educated workers: “We can teach them what they need to run a machine. What is killing us is having to teach them to read, to compute . . . and to think.” The writer David Mamet, in his book Jafsie and John Henry , declaims: “I can envision no device more capable of spreading ignorance and illiteracy than the computer.” Overwrought? Well, he’s a prolific writer, so perhaps he’s been a victim . . . many times.

Meanwhile, proofreaders, marginalised by the multiple tasks modern technology can perform, must reflect on the hours they’ve spent conscientiously probing words to ensure that they convey the meaning their writer intended. – Yours, etc,


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