Correct Composition/Chapter 18

The practice of typography - chapter XVIII headpiece.png



ERRORS of the press is a convenient phrase, for it carries with it a vague notion that there is in the methods or machinery of printing a perverse tendency to the making of mistakes which are due more to the process than to the man. What is meant by the press is not clear: it seems to be a factor apart from the man, for it is seldom any helper of the press confesses that "the mistake is mine." The impression is produced that the complex organization known as the press, which may need a dozen intelligent helpers between the author and the bookbinder, and many unintelligent contributors from the types to the printing-machines, has acquired some measure of independent activity through combination, permitting it to wander away in a forbidden path which could not be foreseen or prevented. That no one should be held responsible for some forms of misprint (another convenient phrase) is a comfortable doctrine for the authors, compositors, and proofreaders who work with haste and negligence, for the press is inanimate and cannot respond. The silent are always wrong.

Another belief has been fostered in the mind of the reader: that printing in its early days was done much better than it is now; that books were printed more accurately when the methods and machinery of the art were simpler, when printers and publishers were men of high scholarship and had more intimate intercourse with the literati of their time. This belief has no good basis. The demigods of typography are like the demigods of so-called history: the greatest are those who are at the greatest distance. Not much research is needed to show that demigods of all kinds do not belong to history but to fiction, and that errors of the press were, to say the least, quite as common in the early days of typography as they are now. With a few exceptions, the early printers were foolishly boastful. They bragged of the superior beauty of their types and the greater accuracy of their texts. Gutenberg, first and best of all, seems to have been the only one who refused to magnify himself. Printing had been practised less than twenty years when Peter Schoeffer, the surviving member of the triumvirate who developed the art, in his edition of the Institutes of Justinian of 1468, reminded his readers that he paid great sums to the wise men who corrected his texts, but he adds that there were even then rival printers who did not take proper precautions against errors of the press. It may be assumed that Gabriel Petrus of Venice was one of the growing number of negligent printers, for he published a book in 1478 with two pages of errata. Before the fifteenth century closed, lists of errata were frequent. Sometimes errors were so numerous that the faulty book had to be reprinted. Robert Gaguin of Paris was so disgusted with the mistakes made by a printer of that city in an edition of French legends (1497) that he ordered a second edition from a printer of Lyons, but the change of printer was not happy: the reprinted book was as faulty as the first.

Cardinal Bellarmine of Rome had a provoking experience in 1581. He cancelled the first edition of his book printed at Rome, and sent an amended copy to a printer of Venice, hoping to get absolutely perfect work, but the new edition was also full of errors.

A book of Picus Mirandola, printed at Strasburg in 1507, in the real cradle of typography, contains fifteen pages of errata.

The fullest list of errata known is that of a book called The Anatomy of the Mass, printed in 1561. This book of one hundred and seventy-two pages is followed by errata covering fifteen pages. In apology, the writer says the errors were caused by the malice of the devil, who had allowed the manuscript to be drenched with water and made almost illegible before it was placed in the hands of the printers. Not content with this, the devil instigated the printers to commit a surprising number of inexcusable blunders.

Books of authority and reference made in the sixteenth century were quite as full of errors as more unpretentious work. Joseph Scaliger said that he would frequently make a bet that he could find an error on any chance-selected page of the Greek Lexicon of Robert Constantine, and that he always won the bet. Chevillier adds that Constantine was responsible for as many errors as the printer.

In his Memoirs, Baron de Grimm tells of a French author who died in a spasm of anger after he had detected more than three hundred typographical errors in a newly printed copy of his work.

The Bible, as a bulky and frequently reprinted book, presents exceptional opportunity for error. An edition of the Vulgate printed in 1590, and said to have been made under the supervision of Pope Sixtus V, has the unenviable distinction of being full of misprints. Barker's edition of the Bible, printed at London in 1632, and notorious in the trade as the Wicked Bible, gives this rendering of the seventh commandment: Thou shalt commit adultery. For this error, undoubtedly made by a malicious compositor, the printer was fined three thousand pounds, and all obtainable copies of the edition were destroyed.[1] To prevent error, Parliament forbade all unauthorized printing of the Bible.

It was the same spirit of mischief -making that prompted a woman in Germany to steal into her husband's printing-house by night and make an alteration in type that was ready for the press by changing the German word Herr to Narr, thereby perverting the passage in Genesis iii, 16, from "he shall be thy lord" to "he shall be thy fool." The story goes that she had to atone for this silly joke with her life.

Errors of the press were and are not confined to any nation. Erasmus said that the books printed in Italy were, without exception, full of faults, due largely to the parsimony of publishers who would not pay a proper price for the supervision of the copy. Books were so incorrectly printed in Spain during the sixteenth century that the authorities refused to license their publication before they had been approved by a censor appointed for the duty. He required that all faults noted by him should be corrected in an appended list of errata. Chevillier says that the printers of Geneva during the sixteenth century used execrable paper and made the texts of their books intolerably incorrect. Even the famous Christopher Plantin of Antwerp was not beyond all reproach. One of his eulogists has to admit sorrowfully that he found in Plantin's enormous Polyglot Bible many errors of paging which his scholarly proof-readers had overlooked.

The apology of John Froben of Basle for his errata is really pathetic: "I do everything I can to produce correct editions. In this edition of the New Testament in Greek I have doubled my care and my vigilance; I have spared neither time nor money. I have engaged with difficulty many correctors of the highest ability, among them John Oecolampadius, a professor of three languages. Erasmus himself has done his best to help me."

This book was in press for a year, but after all this care it had errata of one and a half pages.

Erasmus himself charged one of the workmen of Froben with intended malice in perverting (in another book) his tribute of admiration to Queen Elizabeth of Hungary to a passage of unmentionable obscenity. He declared that he would have given three hundred crowns in gold to have prevented the scandalous error.

Examples enough have been presented to show that errors are not always detected by educated printers or by scholarly correctors, but the summing up may be left to earlier writers. Chevillier, writing in 1694, quotes many authors and printers in support of his proposition that a book without an error is impossible,[2] and that early books do not deserve the reputation they have had for superior accuracy. Prosper Marchand, writing in 1738, says that reader is deceived who thinks that old books are more correct than new books; on the contrary, they are much more inaccurate.

Errors of the press often begin with errors of reporters who have misunderstood spoken words. The rule of follow copy compels the compositor to repeat the exact words written by the reporter, and the following blunders are the result of obedience to this rule. A speaker made this statement:

In these days clergymen are expected to have the
wisdom and learning of Jeremy Taylor.

But the reporter wrote, and the compositor repeated:

. . . the wisdom and learning of a journeyman tailor.

Another speaker quoted these lines:

O come, thou goddess fair and free?
In heaven yclept Euphrosyne.

They were printed as written:

O come, thou goddess fair and. free,
In heaven she crept and froze her knee.

Another orator quoted this line from Tennyson's Locksley Hall:

Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.

But the quotation was written and printed:

Better fifty years of Europe than a circus in Bombay.

One of the worst perversions of a hackneyed quotation (incorrectly given by the speaker) is this, which seems to be the joint work of the zealous reporter and the equally reckless printer:

Amicus Plato, amicus Socrates, sed major veritas.
I may cuss Plato, I may cuss Socrates, said Major Veritas.

Here are other illustrations of the great danger of following the sound regardless of the sense:

Those lovely eyes bedimmed.
Those lovely eyes be damned.
Behold the martyr in a sheet of fire!
Behold the martyr in a shirt on fire!
This battle-scarred veteran.
This battle-scared veteran.[3]

A congressman advocated grants of public lands, not to railroad corporations, but to "actual settlers."

The tired translator of the telegraphic report of the speech construed the last words as "cattle stealers."

An editor closed his leader concerning some municipal abuse that he wished to reform with the quoted Latin lament, o temporal o mores! which the compositor transformed to "O temperance! O Moses!" and it was so printed.

A reporter of a trial tried to write that "the jury disagreed and were discharged," but he wrote indistinctly, and the compositor construed the writing into "the jury disappeared and were disgraced."

A petitioner appealed to a legislature as "individuals" as well as lawmakers. He wrote illegibly, and the clerk read "indian devils" instead of individuals, much to the indignation of the assembly.

Drew[4] attributes these blunders to bad writing:

The book Typographical Antiquities was cited as Typographical Ambiguities.

In testimony concerning a compound microscope the witness said that its efficiency would vary with the power of the " eye-piece " employed. Eye-piece was too carelessly written, and the compositor rendered it as lye-juice.

At a public dinner this toast was offered to the President, "May he live to a green old age." But it was printed, "May he live to a grim old age."

The last words of the poorly written sentence, "Alone and isolated, man would become impotent and perish," were not understood by the compositor, and they were printed as "impatient and peevish."

A bloody battle was so described in a newspaper:

It was fearful to see. The men fell in ranks and marched in pantaloons to their final account.

It is probable that the compositor did not know the word platoon, and thought it proper to make this foolish correction. It must have been a raw compositor of this class who set Dogs of the Seine for Days of the League, and parboiled sceptic for purblind sceptic. These wild guesses at the meaning of the writer had to be hazarded when writing was indistinct.

Many pages could be filled with illustrations of similar blunders some silly or unmeaning, others frightful or blasphemous but in most instances it is evident that the blunders were the outcome of careless or illegible writing. The compositor who is told to follow copy learns to do so mechanically, even if his rendering does not "make sense."

A critical reader may ask why the master printer does not employ compositors of more intelligence who can correctly divine an obscure word after their reading of the context. This expedient is impracticable. Publishers decided long ago that the composition of books is so largely mechanical that it can be done well enough (after its correction by a reader) by men of limited experience and ability, or even by boys or girls. The pay offered is small; the piece-compositor on book-work does not earn, even at the prices authorized by the trade-unions, as much as journeymen mechanics in other trades. Expert compositors refuse to do the piecework of books; they seek and find steady employment at fixed wages by the week on job-work or as operators of type-setting machines. It follows that book composition by hand has to be done by young men and women of limited experience, or by elderly persons who have outgrown all desire to improve the quality of their workmanship or to qualify themselves for better-paid situations.

The irresponsibility of the inexpert compositor is largely increased by his consciousness that there is in the house a proof-reader whose business it is to correct all his faults. Compositors of all grades would make fewer mistakes if they had to pay a proper penalty for all wilfully slighted composition. Contrary to prophecies made some years ago, typesetting machines have proved to be aids to correct composition. The operator who makes an error in every other line, as is not uncommon in hand composition, is soon required to give up his machine. To be advantageous, the machine must be operated by a workman who does not average many errors to a paragraph.

Even when exceeding care has been taken in the selection of able compositors and readers, there is liability to error from oversights and unforeseen accidents. Crapelet[5] tells us of the sore distress of his father in discovering the error of Pelenope for Penelope, in a treatise which he had carefully read three times with intent to make it in all points a faultless book. He had read it too often; he did not have the assistance of a second reader; and his memory failed when most needed. Even the careful reader may pass unobserved the transposition of letters or syllables in a proper name. Looking too intently on one object does not always make that object more distinct; it may produce a temporary obscurity. Proof read and corrected too often by one reader only may have errors in the last proof that did not exist in the first.

A page of the ordinary book consists of at least one thousand and sometimes of five thousand distinct pieces of metal. The omission or the transposition of any one makes a fault which may be serious. Printing-house rules for meddling with type are not sufficiently stringent. No one should be allowed to touch type but the workman in whose charge it is placed. Picking up a type out of a case or the lifting of a line on galley or in a form by a curiosity-seeker should be regarded as a real offence. Gross errors can be easily made in the transposition of letters and lines by unthinking persons who mean to do no mischief.

Errors are frequently made by the compositor who corrects a proof: in trying to correct one error he may make another, or he may damage adjacent letters. Whenever he makes any change in type that has not been marked on the proof, he should take another proof and draw a large ring with lead-pencil around the place of change, and the proof-reader should re-read the entire paragraph by copy as if it were new composition. A similar marking should be made by the electrotyper or the pressman who has bruised letters in a plate, so that the proof shall be read again carefully by the office reader. Some provoking errors are unintentionally made by workmen who think that the formal re-reading of the lines in which the battered letters have been changed is a waste of time.

The renewal of the solid lines of linotype composition calls for great vigilance from the reviser. When the fifth faulty line of a paragraph has been reset by the operator, the corrected line may not be put in its proper place. Some meddler may have pushed other lines up or down. It may be inserted in the gap so made and appear in print as the fourth or the seventh line. To prevent this error the paragraph should be formally re-read. When haste does not warrant a re-reading by copy, the proof that has the fault marked should be carefully folded through the centre and one half of it lapped over the new proof, so that their proper connection will be visible at a glance.

Authors who correct the final proof with a lead-pencil provoke the making of new errors. They note an error in phrasing and write down the correction. After re-reading this correction they see that it does not fully convey the meaning intended. The first pencil markings are rubbed out and other words take their place. Sometimes two or three alterations have to be made, and all are written over markings previously made. Repeated rubbing out makes the writing illegible and liable to perversion. Sometimes an addition is made to a singular nominative which should compel the selection of a plural form of verb or pronoun in the words that precede or follow, but the plural forms may be and often are overlooked. When the press is kept waiting for this final proof, it is possible that the errors corrected will be those only that are marked in the proof. It follows that the author as well as the printer has to suffer the stigma of an inexcusable violation of plain grammatical rules.[6]

  1. Sometimes errata have been purposely made to gratify personal malignity. Paul Scarron, the French poet and writer of burlesques, wrote a book of poems in which were verses dedicated to "Guillemette, my sister's dog." Before the book was published, Scarron quarrelled with his sister, and ordered this erratum to be added: "Make 'Guillemette, my sister's dog' read 'Guillemette, my dog of a sister.'"
  2. Pendleton, Newspaper Reporting, pp. 172-183.
  3. Pens and Types, pp. 16-24.
  4. Études pratiques et littéraires sur la typographie, p. 233.
  5. Here is the story of an error not made by a compositor or reader, pressman or mischief-maker. An author, intent on having an immaculate book, and not content with the official reading of the printing-house, had the last proof revised by another expert reader, who certified that the last reading was without fault. The book was printed, bound, and distributed, and bragged of as a book without an error. A year after publication the author, in making a cursory reëxamination of the work, discovered this phrase, "his too nasty steps." Filled with anger and alarm, he went to the printing-house and demanded the reason why this shocking alteration had been made. The last proof was found and it plainly showed that the phrase was "his too hasty steps." It was clear that a change had been made after the final reading, and possibly in the electrotype plate. The plate was sent for, and, when closely examined under a magnifying-glass, revealed the origin of the error. The solder which fastened the copper shell to the lead base had a minute air-bubble under the top of this letter h, which was unseen and unsuspected by the electrotyper. Some copies of the book (how many could not be ascertained) showed this letter h accurately, but after several perfect copies had been printed, a knot in the paper or a grain of sand or plaster had fallen over the top of this letter h, and had crushed or depressed it in the hollow air-bubble below, practically changing it to the letter n. This depression of the letter h was too small a fault to be noticed by the pressman, who could give but a glance at the sheets when the press was printing apparently faultless copies at the rate of fifteen in a minute.