Story Decisions Can Sometimes Make Editors (Sic)
The Associated Press Stylebook is the gold standard for grammar, spelling, punctuation, language use, and so much more, providing consistent guidelines for writers for nearly 65 years. An editor would be foolhardy to question such an arbiter of proper usage.
Can quotes, outside of the academic arena, be edited? Ever? The AP Stylebook is emphatic in its response: “Never alter quotations, even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage.”
For the sake of argument, let’s make up a quote: “Any minister who doesn’t understand that are living in a dream world,” she said. Should that sentence, which pairs a singular noun with a plural verb, be allowed to stand? Should an editor change that?
It would be an easier choice if that sentence appeared in a letter to the editor, without quote marks. The letters column is the readers’ forum, where people can express their opinions in their own voices. The language they use often correlates with their points of view. Besides, most publications carry an editor’s note to advise people that their letters may be edited for clarity and brevity, allowing much more leeway to decide this issue.
But the quote marks change everything. The AP Stylebook says that quote, if it’s used as written, must be left undisturbed. I’m not so sure.
The sentence could be corrected, of course, with a fragmentary quote (which AP is not especially fond of): Any minister who doesn’t understand that, she said, is “living in a dream world.” Or, since it’s a lousy quote anyway, the sentence could be deleted entirely.
But if the woman is quoted verbatim, the AP advises editors to use sic a Latin word meaning “thus” or “so,” to indicate that the speaker’s words include a grammatical error. “Place (sic) in the text directly after the problem to show that the passage is precisely reproduced,” the stylebook suggests.
I would argue that adding (sic) is a hostile act, less for the benefit of readers than to enable the magazine, newspaper, or website to say, “Yes, this is what the moron actually said. No one here is stupid enough to let that mistake slip past.”
Every time I see (sic), I am reminded that there’s entirely too much arrogance in this business. Writers should certainly be proud of their work, but they should never believe too deeply in their own press clippings. And what about the unfortunate woman the publication so cavalierly belittles?
Editors make conscious choices every day about which errors to correct, and, despite their protestations to the contrary, those decisions reflect their bias. If the editor who handled that sentence thought the woman’s full text was brilliant (in other words, agreed with her), would that person have corrected the mistake? Probably.
The way people talk and write is a good indication of their education and background. Speakers don’t intentionally make grammatical errors, so why embarrass them (and tout ourselves in the process)?
The spoken word, with its spontaneity, is much different than the written word, which we can edit and rewrite until we’re completely satisfied. Our published words outlive us. It’s not necessarily good journalism to let that error become part of the permanent record.
I would lean toward correcting that sentence. What would you do?
P.S.: The 2017 edition of the AP Stylebook is scheduled for release July 11. Since its public debut in 1953, it has been the bible of fine writing.
About The Author
|Professional Writer And Editor|
|I am a professional writer, with hundreds of published stories to my credit, and a former newspaper editor. I also served as director of communications in the corporate arena. I am a recipient of state, national, and international first-place writing awards in the areas of education, business, ...|