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DEAR READER: Show Me the Errors contest stirs fever for accuracy

Saturday, March 5, 2011 | 4:03 p.m. CST; updated 5:02 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 1, 2011

COLUMBIA — Show Me the Errors, a ColumbiaMissourian.com contest that asks readers to join us in stomping out errors in content, stirs quite a bit of conversation in the newsroom.

As you can probably imagine, reporters often want to know if any entries were submitted as a result of errors in their articles.

City editors want to know who got what wrong.

Copy editors worry that they missed something in their ceaseless quest to balance accuracy with speed. Even veteran editors struggle to meet those demanding standards. Deadlines can be cruel — 10 minutes to edit a 20-inch story filled with unusual names and spellings and jam-packed with other facts. Think about what it's like to make every single letter be the exact right one. Try it sometime.

But, we're not looking for sympathy here. It's actually a thrill to meet that challenge. Others might prefer mountain climbing or motorcycle racing, but copy editors go for more sedate adventures — cerebral derring-do, if you will.

What we are actually looking for is accuracy. Or, as the echoing signs posted throughout one newsroom I worked in read: Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.

On Friday, I listened, with pleasure, to Vinnie Duber, a copy editor, question and re-question the spelling of various cities in Libya. He was diligent and found multiple sources — and, frankly, the more he looked, the more he found that the spellings were all over the map. Since a quick trip to Libya to spot-check the names was out of the question, we decided to go with the spellings from The Associated Press, the Missourian's source for international news.

The efforts by Duber and the other editors paid off this month. Entries in the Show Me the Errors contest for February dropped to 139. For January, there were about 200 corrections.

Jim Terry, an art history professor at Stephens College who has been a steady contributor to the contest, was again the winner, bringing his tally to four wins in five months.

When told Saturday of his winning ways, Terry said, "It was a lot harder to find errors this month." 

Frankly, I whooped with joy.

Nonetheless, Terry found 67 opportunities to submit suggestions for corrections. Here's one of the entries that I particularly enjoyed:

"'Smith was worried about having too large of a roster ...'

"This is an error that Mary Cantwell and William Safire dubbed 'the viral of.'

"More examples:

"Los Angeles is much too crazy of a town for me.

"Breakfast was not too big of a meal.

"Ginger's outfit doesn’t have that short of a skirt.

"We didn’t have that good of a day.

"How long of a retirement should you plan for?

"In every case an unnecessary and incorrect 'of'' has been inserted between an adjective used comparatively and the noun it modifies. This usage is common in informal speech, but it has no place in careful writing. Good copy editing is the only known antidote for the viral of."

Terry said the citation is one that he often shares with his students at Stephens College. He read it a few years ago in Safire's "On Language" column in The New York Times and saved it to his computer for future use.

Others have jumped in and out of the contest. For February, there were 72 participants. The second-place winner for the February contest, Jo Hamm, placed second in January as well. The third-place winner is Deana St John with eight entries.

You, too, can join the fun and try to win the Show Me the Errors contest's prizes — a Missourian mug and a hardcover copy of Roy Peter Clark’s book “The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English.”

Maggie Walter is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and a night news editor at ColumbiaMissourian.com. On Friday, she celebrated National Grammar Day and warned others of the dangers of dangling participles. (Someone could get hurt that way.)


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