Due to a reading error …

19 Jun

Imagine how crushing it must have been for the Guardian corrections editor to post this:

Picture 48

No one likes having to print a correction to a correction. Sometimes, it’s just a trivial matter – a typo in a clarification that has to be pointed out the following day. Sometimes a correction will even introduce a new error in its preamble.  But this isn’t, it appears, one of those occasions. This is something much stranger.

The column links, dutifully, to the original correction the day before:

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 12.37.12

Just business as usual, it seems: a writer’s slip, an editor’s inattention, all put right in the corrections desk’s breezy fashion. So what happened to cause a complete reversal of position the following day?

The article, it emerges from the amendment notice at the bottom, has been returned to its original wording following the correction that wasn’t:

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 12.46.08

And when you read the paragraph that caused all the stir, you wonder how on earth any of it could have happened:

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 12.49.10

It couldn’t be clearer: a colon introducing three complete-sentence clauses, separated by semicolons, as a list. It’s textbook. No punctuation errors, no unclear antecedents. It seems impossible to misread. And yet someone seems to have read right past the word “Hinterland”, attached “Happy Valley” to the content of the clause that follows the semicolon, perceived a mistake, and rushed in on Monday morning to get it changed (before, presumably, belated – and one imagines heated – objections from someone who actually worked on the piece).

How did it happen? Uncomfortable scenarios present themselves to the imagination. Did the corrections desk’s natural inclination to take the reader’s side – the “customer is always right” mentality – lead them to change the article on the say-so of a complaint without adequate consultation? Did someone on the corrections desk read the paper inattentively and act on their own authority to “put something right”?

One possible explanation is that the writer got confused about what she had written, called a foul on herself (something many conscientious reporters do if they perceive a mistake) and spoke straight to the ombudsman. Speaking from a fleeting fortnight’s experience as the Tribune’s Sunday corrections editor, when writers turn themselves in it’s very easy for the investigative process to get short-circuited. A letter from a reader is like a tip in an investigation; a confession from a writer is, usually, like closing the case.

But still, not many people appear to have read the sentence correctly (or at all), apart from the editor who passed it for press. And this time it sounds like that editor, whoever he or she was, has overcome the sub’s natural reticence and felt the need to explain, in quite short terms, how syntax works.


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