The error of our ways – Alison Healy on corrections and clarifications

An Irishwoman’s Diary

To err is human. Photograph: Getty Images

To err is human. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Sufferers of the recurring Leaving Cert dream are expected to enjoy a respite any day soon, with the exams now nearing an end. They can go to sleep with confidence, knowing their subconscious won’t make them face a Maths Paper 1 with no knowledge of theorems. I don’t get the Leaving Cert dream anymore, but it has been replaced by a more stressful one.

It centres around a tiny newspaper column which appears sporadically in this and some other newspapers. It’s six years since I worked in a newsroom, but I still have nightmares about appearing in the Corrections and Clarifications column. It carries a significance that far belies its size and it’s never a good day when your work appears in it.

Of course, when you are writing thousands of words under serious time pressure, mistakes are inevitable and it’s very easy to call someone a rabbit instead of a rabbi. As long as those errors don’t involve you, the ensuing corrections can be very entertaining indeed.

I’m thinking of one that appeared in the New York Times in 2020, involving some highly controversial canapes at a Golden Globes after-party. The reporter had written that The Marvellous Mrs Maisel star Rachel Brosnahan had “eyed but did not touch a passing tray of pigs-in-blankets”.

Perfectly innocuous, you might think, but her public relations representative deemed the sentence to be so egregious that it must immediately be corrected. And so, a clarification later appeared in the newspaper, explaining that the actor “did not see trays of hors d’oeuvres being served at the party”.

Well, that must come as an enormous relief to the world at large.

More pigs, but without blankets this time, appeared in another correction column in Australia’s Morning Bulletin in 2011. The newspaper had reported a piggery owner saying that more than 30,000 pigs were floating down the Dawson river after a major flood. Concerned readers must have wondered who would save their bacon. They need not have worried. The following day, a correction explained that the piggery owner had actually said that “30 sows and pigs”, not “30,000 pigs” were displaced by the flood.

You can see how that misunderstanding arose. There was a similar case of mishearing involving Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2003. The Guardian had quoted Sir Jack Hayward, the chairman of Wolverhampton Wanderers, as saying: “Our team was the worst in the First Division and I’m sure it’ll be the worst in the Premier League. ” The poor Wolves players must have been very disheartened after reading that quote.

However, a later correction explained that Sir Jack had just declined the offer of a hot drink. “What he actually said was ‘Our tea was the worst in the First Division and I’m sure it’ll be the worst in the Premier League’.”

Unfortunately for the team, the original Guardian report was eerily prescient. The team had been promoted to the Premier division amid great fanfare, but it finished the season bottom of the division and was swiftly relegated. Happily, the club is back in the Premier League, but whether the quality of the tea has improved or not is a moot point.

Another mishearing muddle occurred during a Brazilian presidential debate in 2014 when Green Party candidate Eduardo Jorge said he had never taken marijuana, preferring instead to relax by reading Tolstoy. It must have been a noisy debate because, by the time the quote appeared in news magazine Veja, Dr Jorge was relaxing by watching Toy Story.

A correction duly followed, but, unfortunately for Dr Jorge, he failed to get past the first round in the election. We could speculate that he lost because he had alienated legions of loyal Toy Story fans, but polls show that the well-read candidate never really stood a chance. At least the defeat gave him more time to once more delve into War and Peace.

The late journalist Con Houlihan famously said that a man who would misuse an apostrophe was capable of anything. So how would he feel about a writer who excluded a comma, thus inadvertently marrying someone to their dog? That was what happened when the New York Times carried a review of Ann Patchett’s memoir. The article said the book mentioned topics ranging from “her stabilizing second marriage to her beloved dog”. Ms Patchett swiftly clarified that, while her love for her dog Sparky was deep, she was in fact married to a person called Karl. Not only that, but Sparky had married a dog called Maggie, in a fundraiser for animal protection. “We are all very happy in our respective unions,” she wrote.

Ms Patchett had a sense of humour, unlike the politician who sought a bizarre correction from me many years ago. The article about the funeral of a well-known person mentioned a few of the public figures in attendance, to give readers a flavour of the event. The politician ordered his assistant to demand a clarification because his attendance was not highlighted in the piece.

He took particular umbrage because he had previously attended another high-profile funeral and was not singled out by the newspaper as one of the mourners. Happily, a clarification was not made.

If he got that exercised over such a trivial matter, I’m just relieved we never inadvertently married him to his dog.

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