May 16, 2005

a bad 'un

Mark's post about the how's-that-again headline "Cedar Point Ride Can't Get Untracked" put me in mind of a story I heard many years ago from my friend Dan Menaker, who's now the head of Random House but in those days was a lowly fiction checker at the New Yorker. (Yes, they have fiction checkers too -- you wouldn't want a character in a short story getting on a Fifth Avenue bus at 59th street and getting off at 86th.) Reading one story, Dan ran across a sentence with a glaring error that had escaped three other editors. Or at least it's glaring after the fact -- it can be hard to spot, even when you've been tipped off in advance to look for it. The sentence read:

They had only just moved in; their boxes lay on the kitchen floor, still unpacked.

What the writer meant to say, of course, was "not yet unpacked," or more accurately if less grammatically, "still ununpacked." But most people take a moment to realize that the sentence doesn't actually mean that. And indeed, if Menaker hadn't spotted the mistake, it would have made it into the pages of the New Yorker. What's going on here?

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at May 16, 2005 11:22 PM