Is perfect text possible?

Mark Pottenger


For me, a text would be perfect if it conveyed exactly what the author wanted to convey, with no distracting OCR, spelling, grammar, punctuation, wrong word, historical, scientific, cultural, anachronistic, or continuity problems in any omniscient or third-person narrative text.

Typos (typing wrong when one knows better) are only one class of error in texts. Mental errors (mindos) are actually more likely to end up in a published book. My essay about errors in published books mostly discussed word-substitution errors, which I sometimes call "oops" words. "Oops" words can be typos or mindos. Another class of mindo is mistaken knowledge, where the author or editor thinks a particular word or fact is correct when it is wrong.

A 2003 category romance provides an example of a knowledge error that can be fixed by changing a single word. An early-evening scene is described with an almost-full moon in the western sky. Just change western to eastern and the astronomical glitch goes away.

I (and other people) have suggested before that publishing could benefit from a beta-testing system. If books had version numbers like a lot of software, I would say the finished manuscript (or file) from most authors is a 0.9 version and the manuscript after editing is a 1.0 version. (Some authors with good proofreading skills produce 1.0 level manuscripts, and some who need a lot of editing produce versions lower than 0.9.) It is almost impossible for a few people to spot all problems in a few readings of any large document. This is especially true for factual/historical errors, but can even apply to grammar. A small group of people (an author and one or a few editors) simply won’t have as much knowledge as the eventual pool of readers of a published book. Readers with specialized knowledge will spot science errors, title errors, geography errors, climate errors, botany errors, horsemanship errors, etc. If publishers provided an easy feedback mechanism their books could benefit from the knowledge of readers. Then the publishers could release version 1.1 (or 2.0 if there are a lot of changes) of the book. This should be relatively easy with ebooks. It even happens occasionally with print publishing. Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren and an early Eloisa James book come to mind (if I’m recalling correctly). I seem to recall reading years ago that multiple rounds of corrections to Dhalgren wiped out profits from the paperback printings, but that could be an urban legend.

I have been sending the errata I notice to the editor of the Grantville Gazette ever since I was given contact info a few years ago. I also got thanked for errata I sent to the authors of a free story on an author web site, so I know that there are actually authors and publishers who will correct texts after a release.

In print, I saw the opposite of perfectibility with the Harlequin Heyer reprints of the early 2000s. The books were very nice in many ways, replacing our falling-apart older copies with more readably sized text, but they introduced dozens of NEW errors. (I checked against our older copies from other publishers.) This is an example of source-specific degradation of text.

Production (manufacturing) errors include binding errors in printed books where a signature (block of pages) is missing or misplaced. In ebooks, I have seen missing and misplaced chapters and other large blocks of misplaced text. I have also seen smaller blocks of text missing. Missing text can only be fixed if a copy of the work containing the missing part exists somewhere or the author is available to ask. I got a couple Harlequin ebooks from Kobo that had major blocks of text missing. When I contacted Harlequin, they said they had provided corrected ebooks to all sellers, but Kobo didn't correct their available downloads when I contacted them, so this is a different example of source-specific degradation of text.

I know of at least one source of ebooks that already has a system in place for readers to submit errata: Project Gutenberg. They welcome corrections, and their FAQ page describes how to submit them.

Much as I might wish to see perfected texts, I can't help thinking about practical issues.

Many textual errors are unambiguous, but there are also some that can only be resolved by asking the author what was intended. Can living authors be expected to spend much time fixing older works instead of writing new works? What do you do when the author is no longer living? Who has the legal right to say what to do with the text? If a text is in the public domain, does anyone have a moral right to change the text to fix ambiguous errors?

What about errors that require some rewriting to fix? In Heyer's set of connected Georgian/Regency books, there is a timing problem between the earlier books and An Infamous Army. The h/h of Devil's Cub are described as the grandparents of Barbara in AIA, but there aren't enough years between the stories to squeeze in an intervening generation. Changing grandparents to parents would only require a few paragraphs to be rewritten, but should it be rewritten or should a perfected text just add a footnote about the known timing problem?

Unambiguous error fixes include spelling and punctuation to form correct English sentences and word substitutions where there is a clear and obvious correction. Even these can have gray areas.

Should quoted dialogue be corrected or left untouched? Should narration in a character's (as distinct from an author's) voice be corrected or left untouched? (E.g., Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch has several me/I errors in first-person narration and one bit of text showing that the character is confused about the correct usage.) My own preference would be to leave most dialogue lightly edited. Keep sentence fragments, since people do speak that way. Fix word substitution errors unless they are clearly intended to convey aspects of a character like Spoonerisms or Malapropisms or the me/I example.

How strictly should period language be enforced in fiction with historical settings? English has changed so much over time that for any setting more than a couple centuries from the present it is much easier to just use current English rather than try to accurately reproduce the language of the time. Where does one draw a line? How much period slang is appropriate? (Too many stories set in the English Regency have socially inappropriate use of slang and thieves' cant.) How much modern psychological jargon is acceptable? (For me, any psychobabble in dialogue set before the late 1800s is an anachronism.)

The use of "flawn" (a custard like flan or a pancake) in several Regency-set books is an interesting case. A dictionary check found "as flat as a flawn", but many books have "as fat as a flawn". I believe Heyer introduced this, but have no way of knowing if it was an error or her part or one of her deliberate traps for other authors copying from her. Should all these instances be treated as errors, or should the current frequency of the "fat" usage be treated as language evolution?

What about regional English? The largest subset of the fiction market is written in the United States for readers in the United States, but is it really appropriate to use American English in stories set in England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Japan, or wherever? Equally, is it appropriate to use British English in books written outside the U. S. but set in the U. S.? I've noticed that some recent Harlequin Historical ebooks written by American authors are in British English. (See Wikipedia for examples of the differences. A few obvious ones are -ize vs. -ise, o vs. ou in several words, and vice vs. vise. I've also read that "gotten" is an Americanism.) Beyond the many versions of English around the world, should more effort be made to use regional English from different parts of the U. S.?

What about punctuation styles, such as single or double quotes? There are many "correct" or "standard" rules, but there are also many choices set in a publisher's or publication's style. Is there such a thing as a truly "standard" version that all authorities agree on for American English?

Error-free means no errors of any kind in dialogue or first-person narrative text OTHER THAN those deliberately used to convey aspects of characters.

Actual speech is full of uh, um, er and other filler that is rarely included in written dialogue. It also includes many errors that speakers would edit out if given the chance, which written dialogue usually does edit out.

Use of dialects and regional languages are stylistic choices rather than errors unless they descend into godwottery, but that shades into the questions if it is proper to use modern American English in dialogue involving non-American characters and settings. I know there is a convention of using the main language of a story for foreign dialogue (a sort of implicit translation), but should that convention be used for speech in other flavors of English?

If the speech of all characters isn't presented in American English, should that of non-American characters use British (and other regional/national) English spelling and punctuation?

Copyright © 2012 Mark Pottenger

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