During the famous SALT talks in 1972, Henry Kissinger heard Leonid Brezhnev recount a chilling story about a condemned man and the tsar of Russia. The tsar had written, rather cryptically: “Execution impossible pardon.”
Without punctuation, it was impossible to tell whether the tsar meant “Execution impossible, pardon” or “Execution, impossible pardon.” The man’s fate hinged on the placement of a comma.
Brezhnev said the tsar left it to the lawyers to decide where the comma should go. “What happened to the condemned man?” Kissinger asked, intrigued.
That seemingly trivial function, punctuation, can mean life or death.
Melodramatic, yes, but by getting things right, you do avoid the potential misunderstandings, humiliations and miscommunications that come with making a public blunder. Can we put a price on that?
With business racing at breakneck pace, proofreading may seem like a quaint relic that’s easily dispensed with, but I’d argue that renders it even more crucial to have “final eyes” on our work. In the rush to meet deadlines, it’s this step that seems to be sacrificed, sometimes with damaging, amusing or embarrassing results.
A more lighthearted example from a magazine cover:
Rachael Ray- finds inspiration in cooking
and her dog.
Okay, so that cover was Photoshopped, but the point remains: We all need some form of copydesk. As a rookie reporter, I imagined the copydesk neurotically nitpicking over my stories like hens pecking at corn kernels. Now I realize that those eagle-eyed editors saved my bacon from stupidity, carelessness, maybe even libel.
Victims of shrinking budgets, proofreaders and copy editors are a vanishing species of unseen and unsung heroes. I bemoan their scarcity upon finding blunders in something I’m reading, or when there’s a gaping hole—an important piece of information left out, such as where was the crime committed, what time does the show start, or how long is the sale going to last.
Before you click “publish” or hand your document to the printer, show it to someone who
- Possesses keen English skills
- Is unfamiliar with its content
The first is self-evident, the second I’ll explain. I can’t tell you how many times a document has gone out from offices where I’ve worked that had passed through many hands, but nobody saw the obvious error. Why? We’re too close to it. Only an outsider—somebody looking at it with fresh eyes–could see the problem. A name is misspelled, a word is written twice, a “not” is missing, or a key piece of information is omitted. Typically it’s the operative word that’s forgotten or misspelled.
After more than 20 years as a professional writer, little that I write for publication goes to a client without another person I trust proofing it. What about spell check and grammar check? Good luck. That’s fine for the first pass, but no computer program caught the following items taken from actual headlines and ads, courtesy of Huffington Post:
- your child’s leaning problems
- honey mustard chicken diapers
- crap yourself in a blanket
Those were the tamest ones. The others I couldn’t print here.
Finalize your documents with ‘final eyes.’
So what was Brezhnev’s response to Kissinger? The wily General Secretary of the Communist Party, characteristically, punted. “My answer will depend on how our talks go.”