At the beginning of each semester, I tell my students that I have a rule about spelling: botch a proper name — person, place or thing — and it will cost you a letter grade. Even so, I often find I have to temper justice with mercy, lest I risk failing someone for the course despite turning in work that is otherwise quite good.
Apparently it’s not much different at the New York Times, whose public editor, Clark Hoyt, weighs in with a piece today on misspelled names. He writes:
The fact is, The New York Times misspells names at a ferocious rate — famous names, obscure names, names of the dead in their obituaries, names of the living in their wedding announcements, household names from Hollywood, names of Cabinet officers, sports figures, the shoe bomber, the film critic for The Daily News in New York and, astonishingly and repeatedly, Sulzberger, the name of the family that owns The New York Times.
Pretty amazing, and I’m not sure why it’s so difficult. Hoyt thinks the Internet might have something to do with it, as it’s become all too easy for reporters to pass on other people’s mistakes. But that doesn’t make sense, because any reporter ought to know enough to visit an authoritative Web site.
A small example. One day in the early ’90s, when I was working for the Boston Phoenix, a fellow copy editor and I were trying to figure out how “Dunkin’ Donuts” ought to be rendered. One of us ended up walking to Kenmore Square in order to look at the sign outside a DD. Today, all we would have needed to do was click here.
When I was going to journalism school, one of my professors, Bill Kirtz (now a colleague), used to say that if you couldn’t be trusted to get the little things right, then you couldn’t be trusted to get the big things right, either. It’s a credo I’ve tried to live by, even as I’ve gotten my share of things wrong, both little and big.