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:

Pros:


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…


Cons:


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.”

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