CBC learns to spell

By Blair Shewchuk

The first memorable gaffe I spotted on CBC.ca was about a close political contest.

We didn’t get the election results wrong or choose a poor focus.

We didn't bury the lead or editorialize or fall into any of the countless other traps that can ensnare journalists.

We did, however, claim that the candidates were running neck in neck instead of neck and neck.

“Quite a feat for necks,” I pointed out. The mistake was fixed.

On their own, racing clichés are bad enough (jockeying for position, down to the wire, a photo finish). The language is unoriginal and uninspired.

But when you misspell a cliché in such a goofy way, it's more than embarrassing. It's enfeebling. Many readers are left wondering what else you’ve bungled, and your credibility is badly hurt.

We all make mistakes, of course.

In a feature on UN arms inspections, for example, I once typed "noclear threat" when referring to Washington's claim about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. One of our editors, Gary Katz, changed the "no" to "nu" and then sent me an e-mail that mentioned Freud.

Given the volume of stories CBC.ca publishes every day under deadline pressures measured by the minute not the hour, a certain number of typos are virtually inevitable.

“Neck in neck,” however, is not a mere typo. It's a case of unbridled illiteracy. (Bridled illiteracy involves copy editors catching and fixing such blunders before they're published.) The “in” is akin to, say, the preposition “of” in “What 'of' you read lately?”

By the way, if the answer to “What [have] you read lately?” is “Mostly broadcast scripts,” you'll readily understand some of the key challenges faced by CBC.ca from the start.

That’s because television and radio reporters write words their audiences hear but never see. They can get away with misspellings and malapropisms that would look amateurish in print or on the web.

But people do see our text. So referring to marshal instead of martial law is not OK, unless, perhaps, we’re writing about gunfights at the O.K. Corral. And describing people sticking to principals instead of principles is wrong, unless the school administrators are covered in Velcro.

Has this meant a major shift in the way we work? Until the internet came along, no one else knew that “know won else new” might be in a CBC News script. Now the corporation’s online division gets blasted when an apostrophe is botched. It’s (not “its”) been quite an adjustment.

The 10th anniversary of our website seems a fitting time to reflect on a few of the lessons learned by a broadcaster turned publisher in this digital age. Here are five:

1. Hire people who can write for the eye not the ear.

Just as most print journalism can't be effectively delivered on air without a rewrite to make it more conversational, most broadcast copy can’t be posted online as is for many reasons, starting with shoddy spelling and poor punctuation.

Bizarre ellipses ... are one example of a convention that doesn't work on the web. Broadcast scripts are sometimes full of these dots ... which help journalists ... break up clusters of words ... they read into microphones ... a lot of lowercase OR ALL UPPERCASE TYPING is also common ... along with missing periods and kooky, commas.

Muddled homophones and their close cousins are another major headache. Over the years, we’ve encountered all the usual embarrassments, including baited for bated, effect for affect, flare for flair, hoard for horde, peaked for piqued, peel for peal, pour for pore, rifle for riffle and shoe-in for shoo-in.

CBC.ca’s small complement of editorial staff deserves a big compliment for catching and fixing so many flubs. But our website has still published its share of errors — some more obvious and painful than others.

The flatfish sole, for instance, once appeared as “soul” without immediately roiling the waters. The same cannot be said, however, about the time we gave Diana the title “Princess of Whales.”

2. Pick a dictionary and buy lots of copies.

Bad spellers must confirm it’s prescription not “perscription” and that surprise has more than one r. Mediocre spellers need to look up words like accommodate and mediocre. Even pretty good spellers may have to check, say, paraphernalia.

When I first joined CBC.ca, the national online newsroom had only one dictionary — a woefully out-of-date Merriam-Webster’s inherited from the old TV current affairs program The Journal.

I brought in a copy of the just-published (1998) Canadian Oxford. Within weeks, the book’s spine was split in half — as if someone had hurled it across the newsroom in a rage.

I never found out exactly what happened. Perhaps the extra “l” in the Canadian spelling of travelling prompted someone to send the dictionary flying. But I did persuade our boss to buy a replacement, and over the next few years CBC.ca got dozens of copies for newsrooms across the country.

Last winter, the corporation invested in an online subscription to the latest edition of the Canadian Oxford — which means employees can now look up words from any computer inside any CBC station. It's good news to all except those who enjoy throwing tantrums and heavy objects.

3. Establish consistent in-house style.

English dictionaries often have more than one answer, so you need to rule on preferences. For example:


And they don’t have all the answers, so you have to determine how you’re going to handle everything from certain transliterations (al-Qaeda versus al-Qaida) to proprietary nouns (iPod or IPod). This includes making a lot of decisions about punctuation, capitalization, abbreviations, accents, italics and even certain plurals (BlackBerrys versus BlackBerries).

We initially used the Canadian Press style manual as our main authority but found that our list of additions and exceptions kept growing. We also hated the lag of several years between CP’s updated editions.

CBC.ca's Language Online internal style guide
CBC.ca's Language Online internal style guide

So CBC.ca gave me permission to create an internal style bible, Language Online, on our intranet in 2003. It’s now got more than 4,000 entries and grows every week, with preferences determined by a small group of masochists.

The good news about an electronic style guide is that you can instantly update things and readily find answers through keyword searches. The bad news is that not everyone bothers to confirm that it’s, say, guerrilla instead of guerilla. The worse news is that some people type gorilla and we look like baboons.

4. Hire skilled copy editors.

No matter how sophisticated the technology gets, electronic spellcheckers will never satisfactorily replace good editors. That’s because the latter do far more than hunt for typos.

A few years ago, a CBC.ca writer described in detail a phenomenon called the “incidents of attacks” — which he very seriously defined as an economist’s term for passing on various surcharges through higher prices. A colleague who knows almost nothing about economics was suspicious, however, and quickly determined that the term is actually “incidence of a tax.”

Stellar editors correct inaccuracy, clarify ambiguity, axe jargon, reframe poor structure, elevate mediocrity and help prevent lawsuits, among other things.

Our online writing and research staff expanded long before our tiny copy editing unit, which had the most modest of beginnings. Initially, peers looked at each other’s work. Then some part-time editors were hired to review the website from home after material was already published. Eventually a few full-time positions were created.

Earlier this year, veteran editor Joan Ramsay was recruited to set up and run a central copy desk. With decades of experience at places such as the Globe and Mail and Canadian Press, she brings unprecedented “print” expertise and rigour (also spelled “rigor”) to the public broadcaster’s online division, where — as painful as this is to admit — things are sometimes still “nipped in the butt” instead of the bud.

5. Pay attention to readers’ e-mails.

Like goalies, even the best editors inevitably let a few things slip past. One of the marvels of the online world is the almost instant feedback from our audience.

Occasionally the letters are dead wrong, including a complaint I received a few months ago from an Edmonton man who insisted “it’s” should never be used as a contraction for “it has.”

Far more often, however, the e-mails are dead-on. Sometimes they're also deadly sarcastic — such as the brief note we got in 2001 about a typo in a story on military chaplains. We inadvertently transposed two letters, turning “sacred” into “scared,” which prompted one reader to ask: “Did you terminate all your copy editors or just frighten them away?”

Ideally, of course, all our writing would be flawless. But everyone is fallible. So we introduced a Report a Typo feature in the fall of 2004 that makes it easier for readers to tell us about mistakes, which we then try to fix as quickly as possible.

We get hundreds of comments a month. Some are groundless, and many refer to the same clanger — with several people writing in minutes after an error has been published. But the number is still humbling, and we’re counting on our expanded editing desk to help reduce typos and raise already high standards.

CBC News has a long history of getting details right, both in content and presentation.

In broadcasting, proper pronunciation is important and anything but easy — although as someone who started out writing for newspapers a quarter-century ago, I didn’t understand the extent of the challenge until years later.

When covering the Saskatchewan legislature for CBC Radio back in 1991, for instance, I remember being impressed that a network announcer, Russ Germain, bothered to call me from Toronto to find out how to say the name of the province’s new finance minister, Ed Tchorzewski.

And when writing for CBC-TV, I recall watching the lengths that The National’s anchor, Peter Mansbridge, went to in order to confirm the proper pronunciation of the northern Quebec village of Kangiqsualujjuaq during an already very busy shift.

Pronunciation, however, is irrelevant on CBC.ca. Instead, the internet has broadened the corporation’s need to worry about spelling far more than in the past, when only a few words of text in TV graphics required careful attention.

Many lessons have been learned here during the past decade, including that “neck in neck” is a gaffe. (A “gaff in the neck,” of course, produces a completely different type of howler — one that could well prove fatal.)

Given the nature of the web (which blends the pressures of non-stop newscasts with the scrutiny of newspaper publishing), one spelling truism towers above the rest: It’s much harder to generate fast, accurate and compelling online journalism than it is to poke fun at occasional slips and be a general pain in the neck — or some other part of the anatomy.

Blair Shewchuk is CBC.ca's senior editor of journalistic standards. He also runs the training program for online editorial staff. Blair began his career writing for newspapers 25 years ago. He joined the CBC in 1989 and worked in both TV and radio before moving to CBC.ca in 1999. Between other assignments, he occasionally writes Words: Woe & Wonder, a column about the English language.