August 18, 2005

The duty to correct

On Sunday (8/14/05), the New York Times Magazine's Ethicist, Randy Cohen, took on some ethical issues in publishing, in response to a translator who had discovered that an article she was translating (from Hungarian into English) "was copied in large part from a lexicon published in 1929" and asked whether she should report her discovery to her employer ("a major American research institution"). Yes, says Cohen, not surprisingly. But then he goes on to enunciate a duty to correct errors in the language of texts -- a position that strikes me as well-intentioned but potentially troublesome in practice.

Cohen begins by observing that if the translator doesn't report the copying, probably no one will. And she has a duty to:

When it comes to ordinary civilians, both law and ethics impose only a limited duty to report wrongdoing... But you are not an ordinary civilian; you are part of a scholarly community, and different contexts entail different obligations. Intellectual integrity can be maintained only if members of your community report transgressions. Without this self-policing, the field cannot sustain its own values.

So far, we're in familiar territory. Now come the language issues:

You also have a duty to your employer. Everyone in the publishing process should report a solecism that would otherwise go undetected--a misspelling, a grammatical error. Similarly, all should report a serious ethical transgression. To keep silent would undermine the project on which you are employed.

There are two duties here, one apparently more weighty than the other: to report serious ethical transgressions and to report solecisms in language. Perhaps the second duty falls short of being an ethical imperative, but it is still a significant responsibility, according to Cohen. Cohen might want to think about how to frame this responsibility, since "solecism" covers a lot of territory -- and just how much depends on who you read. The authorities are by no means on the same page here, so to speak.

No one's denying that writers fall into error. There are typos, "cutnpaste errors" (in which parts of two different formulations survive the editing process), inadvertently omitted words, ill-chosen words, and much more. If you're part of the publishing enterprise and these come by your eyes, you should of course report them. But then there's a large gray (or grey) area, which includes matters on which there are house styles, different styles for different houses, and also "usages people keep telling you are wrong but which are actually standard in English" (in the words of Paul Brians, on his non-errors page). Brians's page is a place to start, but for serious, detailed advice you'll need to consult MWDEU.

What you don't want to do is start reporting all those things that some manual or other says are solecisms: people used as the plural of person, over used as a quantifier meaning 'more than', once used as a subordinator meaning 'after, when, as soon as', restrictive relative which, and on and on. That will only make you a pest to your colleagues and employers, and a monkey wrench in the works of the publishing process.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 18, 2005 12:40 PM