The pitfalls of dictated MS

A copy-editing job I recently completed made me think a lot more about the sorts of anomalies I should be looking out for. It was the first time, in over 12 years of copy-editing/proofreading, that I had worked on dictated MS, and I hadn’t even realised it was such until this particular error cropped up. The section in question was a great example of how a wrongly heard word or words, and subsequent typing thereof, can have huge consequences on the context of the book in question.

An extremely potted version of the text went as follows: ‘rendered the historic past unimportant undertaking’ – meant to be ‘an important undertaking’. Phew, I'm glad I picked that up! And a classic example of how hugely important the job of a proofreader/copy-editor is. The spell check would not have flagged this up, and the layperson, skimming over the text, would more than likely not have noticed it.

A colleague’s experience of something similar, in a more humorous vein, follows: ‘I once invigilated at a shorthand and typing exam where the tutor reading out the text was an English-speaking Frenchwoman with a strong French accent. The text included the words: “You were over an hour late.” As I patrolled the room, diligently invigilating, I glanced over various shoulders and saw that the poor candidates had typed, “You were off and are late”. They must have wondered what the hell it meant, though, but perhaps they were in too much of a sweat to notice.

And another instance – ‘there is an urban legend about a young and inexperienced typist transcribing the dictated term “Prima-donna” as “pre-Madonna”.’

A legal friend had this story to tell – ‘A letter I was dictating to my secretary, destined for another law firm, came back to me thus: “I will have my client executed” instead of “I will have my client execute it”’… talk about poor legal skills!

And from that same legal friend – ‘once my secretary typed that the client would not be able to keep “penguins” in their terraced house when in fact what had been said was “pigeons” – common in old deeds.’ (Same secretary?!)

A journalist friend recounts: ‘I once had to dictate my burblings, as I used to call my articles, down the phone to somebody at the newspaper office because I lost the internet connection and the article was urgent. I was terribly excited about this because I'd seen them do it in old films and always thought how exciting it must be – J. Drewery, ace reporter, dashes to the bank of telephones in Grand Central Station, etc. But the person receiving my dictation couldn't spell. My suspicions becoming aroused by the various panicky noises and “Oh, God!”s coming down the phone. I started spelling out all the hard stuff, but she assured me she could spell “prophecy” so I took her word for it, not wanting to patronise. She couldn't, and it came out as “proficy” in an article with my name splashed all over it. I was very woebegone. My mate at the paper, the entertainments editor, cheerily told me that all the readers would think I was an ignoramus.’

Although these are wonderfully humorous anecdotes, and thankfully everyone survived to type another day, it certainly helps to underscore the fact that proofreaders are not a dying breed, copy-editors are indeed worth their salt, and without such professionals the written English word would become the permanent butt of endless jokes.

I can’t end my most enjoyable foray into the literary world without reminding us all of that classic – Charles de Gaulle’s wife telling everyone she was looking for ‘a penis’!

Many thanks to the following colleagues for their valuable contributions – Jenny Drewery, Johanna Ferguson, Louise Harnby and Felicity Knight.

Jennifer Hinchliffe, Professional Copy-Editor and Proofreader, An Eye for Perfection

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