Who Proofed this Wicked Thing?

King_Charles_I_by_Gerrit_van_Honthorst_smWhy is it so easy to see problems with another author’s work? Their run-on sentences leap off the page. A misused word screams at me, their not there. The tense is wrong, had not have. Stop info dumping; don’t tell me that, let me arrive at it. Don’t give background this soon; you’re losing my attention. Dump those unnecessary attributions to the speaker; your reader knows who’s voice it is—does something look wrong? Whose to say?

Self-proofing is extraordinarily difficult. Thoughts mysteriously formed in the cerebral cortex find their way to paper, or its digital counterpart. We read our output and see what we intended to see. We catch some, maybe most, of our mistakes, but we often create new ones in the process—we never get them all.

Proofed, as used above is a misnomer. Long ago, well before printing presses, books were hand written and reproduced by copying an original. An indispensable part of the process required a person to prove that the copy matched the source. The proofreader’s importance grew with the printing press. An expensive production run wouldn’t start until the proofreader judged the typesetter’s galley copy accurate.

But alas, all systems are fallible as the Royal Printers, Robert Baker and Martin Lucas learn in 1631. Their one thousand copies of the King James Bible were widely distributed before discovery of an embarrassing error. King Charles I, King James’ son, fined the printers £300, revoked their printer’s license, and ordered the destruction of the bibles because of the mistake.

Was this the first government ordered recall? I’ll leave that question to others, but I know that Charles’ defense of the Bible’s purity didn’t save him from a premature death. The Rump Parliament executed him for treason at age 48.

Proofreading is fallible because we see what we expect to see. The compositor in 1631, typesetter today, saw what he expected. The corrector, proofreader today, saw what he expected. But neither saw what wasn’t there. A small but important word in Exodus 20:14 didn’t appear where it should have. A few, perhaps eleven, copies of the faulty books survived. Known as The Wicked Bible, The Adulterous Bible and The Sinners’ Bible they are very valuable today.

I have to wonder who saved the errant books from the king’s wrath. Perhaps, like Gideon’s tucking Bibles in nightstands, female occupants of small rooms above English pubs kept copies to comfort and amuse their visitors. In case, you haven’t looked it up, Exodus 20:14 shouldn’t read, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Not is a powerful word.Wicked bible

Copy editing is the proper term for what most of us call proofreading. Actual proofreaders, the ones that work for the big guys, spend their time making sure text looks good on a page. Copy editors make their corrections and suggestions long before proofreading begins. They have the knowledge, experience and, bless them, temperament to deal with self-righteous authors that think they know everything. Even if they do know everything, they don’t see everything.


David P. Cantrell is an author and a member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff.

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Author: David P. Cantrell

I'm a retired baby-boomer enjoying life.

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