Someone teach the Times how to use spellcheck before they strike again

March 12th, 2007 → 10:59 am @ // 5 Comments

I’ve been accused of being obsessed with the inability of the Times to spell Kurt Andersen’s name correctly. (They’ve gotten it wrong repeatedly in the last several months, most recently last Tuesday. The paper did seem to spell ‘Andersen’ correctly in this Sunday’s Book Review. If I ever get a front-page review like that, I don’t care if they spell my last name Mynukan.)

Andersen’s isn’t the only “en” name the paper repeatedly fucks up. Today’s paper contains a correction about the misspelling of Theodore C. Sorensen’s name — and considering that Sorensen, as one of Kennedy’s top advisers, is even better known than the founder of Spy, that’s even more embarrassing. But it gets worse: the correction isn’t just for a single story: the Times Sorensoned him on February 22 and again this past Saturday. (According to a Nexis search, the paper has made the same mistake at least 45 times since 1970; the actual number may be greater than that.)

I’ve been using computers since I was 12, when I plugged the old Timex Sinclair 1000 into a black-and-white TV. At the time, I even knew how to program in Basic. So it’s very possible that my vast computer experience is greater than the collective experience at the Times, and maybe that explains how I’ve been able to add proper names into my spellcheck to make sure, for example, that I don’t misspell Andruw Jones as Andrew Jones. Still, I need to assume that the newspaper that defines itself — and rightly so — as one of the premier news-gathering organizations in the world can somehow figure out how to write some code into their internal system to ensure they don’t repeatedly misspell proper names that appear in their pages with some regularity. But maybe I’m being overly optimistic.


Post Categories: Kurt Andersen & New York Times

5 Comments → “Someone teach the Times how to use spellcheck before they strike again”


  1. tinisoli

    10 years ago

    Clearly the New York Times hates Norwegians and Danes (whose patronymic surnames often end with -sen) but loves the Swedes (-son).

    If Craig Hansen makes the big league club this year we should look for the old gray lady to turn him into Hanson.

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  2. HFXBOB

    10 years ago

    This kind of sloppiness is irritating indeed. Maybe it’s symptomatic of what’s going on in the media in general. My own pet peeve tends to factual errors. I have read 2 sports books recently, ‘I Call the Shots’ by Johnny Miller, and ‘Idiot’ by another Johnny, that contain an incredible number of factual mistakes. In Miller’s book, for example he mis-identifies the sequence of tournaments that made up the ‘Tiger Slam’, probably the greatest achievement in the history of the sport. And Damon’s book makes 4 errors describing the last 3 outs of the 2004 World Series.

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  3. oldgoat

    10 years ago

    Seth knows a lot about journalism, but he’s woefully uninformed about newspaper production systems, and his gratuitous insult to the New York Times computer staff is completely unwarranted. Popping some user-written spellcheck code into a PC was simple in the days of Basic, but it’s well-nigh impossible for a newspaper IT staff to insert programming into MS Word, Adobe InDesign or Quark Xpress: how do you modify the spelling checker software when you don’t have access to the source code? As a copy editor (not on the East Coast), I hate misspellings as much as anyone, but to blithly assume that technology can eliminate spelling (and hyphenation) errors is silly. Every newspaper spelling checker that I know of is loaded with individual words, not multiple strings of words. If you’ve got Sorenson and Sorensen in the spelling checker, then a human has to decide which is correct for Theodore C. Sorens*n. Ditto Allan Greenspan, er, I mean Alan Greenspan. As newspaper staffs continue to shrink, the result will be more silly errors in print. And as newspaper profits continue to shrink, publishers aren’t going to put a high priority on spending money for better spelling checkers.

    You’re right — I was being overly simplistic. But it’s not even close to being as hard as you’re making it out to be. I don’t know of a single word processing system that doesn’t let you create your own dictionary; I have one on my computer that includes “Mnookin,” “Lucchino,” “RBI,” etc. (That would have at least caught “Sulzberger”…which the Times famously misspelled about a decade ago.) I can’t imagine an outfit the size of the Times doesn’t already have whatever program it uses customized in all sorts of ways; that’s pretty standard across the board, and it’d be impossible to produce a daily paper like the Times without the programs they use being individualized. And yes, if you have Sorensen and Sorenson in the spellchecker, a human will need to decide. No amount of staff cuts is going to bring us to the point where the person sitting at the desk at the end of the night can’t figure out which one of those is right. I think budget cuts at newspapers are terrifying, but they can’t be blamed for this kind of sloppiness.

    — Seth

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  4. oldgoat

    10 years ago

    I’ve added over 7,000 words to my newspaper’s spelling checker. Trouble is, with our version of Adobe InDesign, whenever I add a word to the master list, the updating process wipes out the individual lists of everyone in the newsroom. Adobe has fixed this bug, but the upgraded software won’t be installed here until 2009.
    I’d like to be able to tell the software to recognize the capital letter and hyphenate Trib-une properly, instead of having the hyphenation be based on a Roman tri-bune. The software won’t allow it. Our old Atex system at least allowed me to tell it to hyphenate the word as Trib-une in all instances, but Adobe always goes for Tri-bune. I’m blaming that on a Latin programmer.
    I’d also like the software to know the hyphenation difference between Arnold Pal-mer and a card-shark palm-er. I’ve never found a newspaper system that could handle that one. Ditto President Car-ter and a cart-er (one who drives a cart.)
    Ditto Ann Lan-ders and lunar land-ers. Not to mention the ship’s tend-er vs. a ten-der thought.
    When you’re on a copy desk, shoveling stories and writing headlines as fast as you can in order to get the presses started on time, mistakes get through. That’s not being sloppy; it comes with the hell-bent deadline nature of the business. With the downsizing of newsroom staffs, quality will only go downhill.
    But on one thing we totally agree: there is NO excuse for not getting Sulzberger right.

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  5. rog

    10 years ago

    Oldgoat makes many valid points. At the place where I work, the way that stories are produced (from beginning to end) has been totally overhauled recently. That means that people who are not used to fact-checking are now responsible for…fact-checking. And as a company who is almost anal in it’s ability to get stuff right, you’d think that this would bother higher-ups, but as my supervisor put it, if it doesn’t affect the bottom line then nobody will care. Outrageous staff cuts are absolutely the reason why these types of mistakes are getting through (at all dailies and weeklies) and your last line of defense should be copy editors, not software. People are valuable, not fucking MS Word but, hey, every time a publisher announces layoffs the price of their stock goes up so what do I know?

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