Compounding the Error

An error isn’t really corrected if readers can't understand the correction

The first thing you need to know is that Tim Hortons is a Canadian coffee chain. More than that, however, it’s a staple and symbol of Canadian life. Tims, as some call it, is everywhere in Canada. They even built one on a Canadian military base in Afghanistan. (Not surprisingly, the original Tim Horton was a hockey player.)

The second thing you need to know is that the ubiquity of Tim Hortons still doesn’t help explain this correction from the Guelph Mercury of Ontario:

Re: Page 2 column A community Editorial Board column by Nancy Britton published on page A2 of yesterday’s newspaper failed to make explicit that Britton is describing her relationship with Tim Hortons. Many readers concluded otherwise.

Really? What did they conclude? The paper did the right thing by publishing the correction online, but the original piece is nowhere to be found. The reader is left to wonder what the column was, and why it was misinterpreted by so many. Allow me to offer an excerpt of Ms. Britton’s column:

I think I’m in a love-hate relationship. It’s tearing me apart. Each time I try to end the relationship I fail miserably. He’s everywhere it seems. Tempting me. Drawing me back… In determining whether I should end this relationship, I’ll hammer out a few pros and cons and see how it all stacks up:


1. He’s quick and reliable.

2. He never pays but is certainly quite reasonable on my pocketbook.

3. His family is always welcoming.

4. Just like the Holiday Inn used to tour in its marketing - there are certainly no surprises. He is dependable and predictable.

5. His house is always clean.

6. He gives me surprise gifts - at predictable times. This is sort of a pro and a con. The type of gift is a surprise but when he gives it is not.

7. His family has a great name, is well-regarded and is considered a Canadian icon…


1. I always have to wait for him.

2. He has a huge collection of cars, usually idling, outside his front door

3. I’m not sure how good he is at recycling - and this is important to me.

4. He has an inordinate percentage of women in his family, women who seem to do all the work.

5. His house may be clean. But I doubt that he uses green cleaning product.

6. He is everywhere I am. I keep running into him - is this just remarkable coincidence?…

Tim Hortons wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the piece. Readers were supposed to get the joke. A lot of them didn’t. It’s a case of a vague article leading to a vague correction, a double no-no. But vague corrections just as easily spring from clear prose. They’re all too frequent and they render corrections useless. After all, what good is a correction if no one can understand what you’re talking about?

A lot of the corrections I see every day would never make it past the copy desk if they were presented as news briefs. These corrections give the impression that no one could be bothered to consider the reader. But an error isn’t really corrected if readers are unable to understand the correction.

Some correction writers, such as Ian Mayes, the former readers’ editor of the Guardian, elevated correction writing to an art. (To read some of his work, scroll to the bottom of this page.) Last year, with his blessing, I created the Ian Mayes Award for Writing Wrongs to celebrate “the publication or person that demonstrates wit and wisdom in the writing of corrections.”

The first winner was David Hummerston of the West Australian. Here’s a sample of his work:

Old Sparky: The compilers and suppliers of our On This Day column deserve to learn a lot more about electric execution. The recidivist column wrongly stated that the first electric chair execution took place on July 7, 1890. In fact, it was Wednesday, August 6, 1890 in New York - ironically then known as The Electric City of the Future - that wife-killer William Kemmler became the first man executed in an electric chair. Although Dr George C. Fell said Kemmler “never suffered a bit of pain”, a reporter who also witnessed the execution wrote in the New York Herald the next day that “strong men fainted and fell like logs upon the floor”.

Bad conduct: Charles Mackerras was not born in Australia (Emma hits heights, Today, page 6, December 1). The eminent orchestra conductor was born to Australian parents in 1925 in musical-sounding Schenectady, New York. Apropos of nothing, Schenectady was where, in 1886, the Machine Works company was set up by Thomas Edison, who also knew a thing or two about conductors.

Now compare those to a January correction from the Chicago Sun-Times:

A story in Wednesday’s paper contained a quote attributed to Evanston police commander Tom Guenther that was taken out of context.

Or this correction published by the Ottawa Sun last February:

An article in yesterday’s Sun incorrectly identified the Canadian Coalition for Action on Tobacco.

A month earlier, offered this correction:

For a brief period on Dec. 20, misstated the chances of an asteroid’s collision with Mars.

These corrections are pointless, a waste of words and space. Fortunately, the solution to incorrect corrections is rather simple: editors should write corrections as if the words and message come from a human being and are intended to be easily read and understood by other humans.

You know, almost as if they were examples of journalism.

Correction of the Week

“Immaculate misconception: We got ourselves in almost as much of a tangle as former bishop Fernando Lugo, who has now had three separate allegations of paternity levelled against him (President hit with third baby claim, page 26, April 24). The former man of the cloth might get around but he is the President of Paraguay only, not Peru as we misconceived.” – West Australian

Infamous Last Words

“An obituary of Maurice Jarre (31 March, page 36) opened with a quotation which we are now advised had been invented as a hoax, and was never said by the composer: ‘My life has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life.”’ The article closed with: ‘Music is how I will be remembered,’ said Jarre. ‘When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head and that only I can hear.’ These quotes appear to have originated as a deliberate insertion in the composer’s Wikipedia entry in the wake of his death on 28 March, and from there were duplicated on various internet sites.” – The Guardian

Parting Shot

“A Jan. 19, 2008, Metro article incorrectly described the Korean language as using symbols. It has an alphabet.” – The Washington Post

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Craig Silverman is the editor of and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of and a columnist for the Toronto Star.