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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: It doesn't take a madman to create a dictionary, but story shows it helps

By Maggie Walter
September 28, 2012 | 12:00 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Two events bookend this week: Monday was National Punctuation Day, and next Monday marks the start of the third year of Show Me the Errors. 

Truthfully, the first event kind of blew by me, but I tried to make up for it by talking about punctuation during the next day's copy editing class. Gee, that's embarrassing.

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The second event, though, remains front and center. For those of you who participate in the contest, you might remember that each year we introduce a new book as one of the prizes. We're going to continue giving a Missourian T-shirt to our monthly winners, as well.

So, starting with the October contest, the book prize will be "The Professor and the Madman" with the subtitle, "A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary." It was written by Simon Winchester, a prolific author who has written other books on words and language, as well as a variety of other topics. 

"The Professor and the Madman" has been on my reading list for a while, but like all true bookaphiles, that list gets longer almost daily and reading time is never enough.

"The Professor and the Madman" wended its way to the top of the list recently and provided many happy hours of linguistic learning and lots of laughter.

Winchester does a remarkable job pulling together the threads of this complex story. If it weren't so well documented, one might think it was a tale instead of a true story.

William Safire, writing in the New York Times Magazine, called the book "The linguistic detective story of the decade."

Winchester not only lays out the making of the Oxford English Dictionary  — the world's first comprehensive dictionary — but the biographies of two men who were intricately involved in creating it. There's love, duty, honor, horror, learning, hopes, dreams and the oddities of human foibles — all cohesively entwined.

It took 70 years to complete the OED, as it's often referred to in crossword puzzles. Work began in 1857, and thousands of people were involved in the project. In the end, it organized the English language into 414,825 definitions.

The professor in the title is James Murray. The madman is William Chester Minor, an American surgeon, who had served in the Civil War. How these disparate men came in contact with each other is the heart of the book, but their love of language is the common thread throughout.

I suspect there are elements of that appreciation of language in Show Me the Errors'  participants. During August, there were 33 participants who submitted 79 corrections. Jim Terry, an art history professor at Stephens College, led the pack with 44 submissions. Kip Hill won the drawing to receive the prizes. He received a Missourian T-shirt and a copy of "The Great Typo Hunt." Many thanks to all our participants.

You can join them and help the Missourian by participating in the contest, too. It's simple to enter. If you find an error in a story, go to the bottom of the story and look for the Show Me the Errors entry box. Click on it, type in your find and that's it. Editors at the Missourian automatically receive an email, investigate the suggestion and make any necessary corrections.

Of course, it's a push-pull situation – I'd love more participants, but I don't really want us to have more corrections. But I do want to know about any we do make and to correct them. It's enough to make a person mad.

Maggie Walter is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and an interactive news editor at ColumbiaMissourian.com. She's a strong supporter of The Apostrophe Protection Society. Started in 2001, by John Richards, it advocates the correct use of this much-abused punctuation mark. If you know what's wrong in the following examples —  Taxi's only, Menu's, Recruitment at it's best — then you might want to join, too.