The perils of [sic]

(From my enormous backlog of Things to Blog On.)

In The Atlantic of December 2013, a letter (p. 13) from Tom Bourne of Woodstock VT:

The word sic is used to indicate an incorrect word in a quote. Why, then, does Karl Greenfeld use it after a perfectly correct its? I can only assume someone thinks its should be it’s here: “We have also to read 79 pages of Angela’s Ashes and find ‘three important and powerful quotes for the section with 1-2 sentence analyses of its [sic] significance.’ ” The possessive its is fine just the way it is. I’ll bet both Greenfield and his daughter know that. How about your proofreader?

The Copy Desk disputed this in a reply; see if you can anticipate its content. And then we’ll talk a bit about the perils of [sic].

From the copy desk at the magazine:

The [sic] notation is included in this quotation to indicate that the author (along with the copy editors and, yes, our proofreaders) recognizes that the appropriate word here is their, to refer back to the plural quotes. We concede that its inclusion might not have been necessary, and perhaps our [sic] could be read as condescending toward the teacher – but please rest assured that we do know the difference between its and it’s.

Quite so.

Still, the notation [sic] merely flags that there is something wrong at this point in the quoted material, and that the original is being presented verbatim; the error is not to be attributed to the person quoting the material. But it doesn’t identify the error or say how the text should read; readers of the quotation have to figure that out for themselves. And readers might go awry, as above.

(It’s also scarcely unknown that writers will sometimes flag stuff with [sic] incorrectly, marking as an error something that’s perfectly acceptable.)

As a result, [sic] is a perilous move. It can go wrong in several ways, and it clutters up text, interfering with smooth reading.

If a text is errorful, there are several things you can do. You can paraphrase rather than quote. Or you can flag the whole text as quoted verbatim, without editing on your part. Or, up to some limit, you can replace obvious errors with corrected versions in brackets; this strategy I especially recommend for obvious typos, like thoery for theory.

Of course, not all errors can be localized to a single word or short phrase, so more comple therapy might be needed.

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