Exercice de Style:


Having reviewed an assortment of errors in this occasional column, I should like to say a word about corrections. That is: to outline a protocol for suggesting corrections to Internet authors. This is fairly new territory for readers, who cannot (if sane) have been expected to take the trouble to bring each and every typographical error to the attention of book publishers. On the Internet, such helpfulness is no trouble at all; indeed, it is all too easy. For that reason, I counsel Internauts to bear in mind two general rules. Both derive from the principles of good and thoughtful manners.

First of all, try not to correct an author in public. Avoid the corrective comment. If the author has written “Louis XV” for “Louis XVI,” do not point this out in a manner visible to all and sundry, no matter how sure you are of being right. Corrections ought to be suggested in emails addressed to the author. If an address is not available, it is best to bite your tongue; the author has more or less pre-emptively decided to do without your help.

The only other rule is to keep the suggestion as readily intelligible as possible. A letter of correction ought to be free of all other material. Don’t begin by complimenting the writer on his or her great work. Don’t point out how long you’ve been reading the site. Don’t ask if the writer is going to read another book by the novelist named in the offending passage. And do not apologize for offering the correction.

Even when you’re sure of yourself, try to infuse your note with a tentative tone. Instead of saying anything declarative, such as “This is wrong!”, present your correction as the offering of an ordinary reader, not as that of a higher power. For example:

I think that you might have meant to say that ‘World War I,’ not ‘World War II,’ was concluded by the Peace of Versailles.

Note the italics. The detail requiring correction ought to leap out at the recipient, so that there’s no need to guess what you’re talking about. You may prefer to underline or bold-face these details.

Typographical errors ought to be highlighted without comment. Where the writer has typed “hisotry,” you might say,

As we see from the history of banking.

Make a point of incorporating your correction; do not simply repeat the error, leaving it to the writer to figure out what to do next.

No one enjoys being corrected, but seasoned writers understand both the inevitability of error and the utility of proofreaders. Your objective ought not to be to shame or embarrass the writer, but to elicit a genuinely grateful response — whether you receive one or not.

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