Saturday, July 05, 2008

The word surgeon

The Kochi-based Prof. M.T. Thomas checks for errors for two national news magazines and sends his feedback

By Shevlin Sebastian

Every Saturday afternoon, Prof. M.T. Thomas of Bharat Mata College goes to an agency near the South bridge. There, he collects the latest edition of 'India Today' and 'Outlook'. Later, he drops in at 'The Week' office and collects a copy. Thereafter, till Sunday night, he is perusing every page of the three national magazines looking for errors. He has been doing this for the past ten years.

It all began when he began highlighting mistakes in 'The Week' in a letter to the editor. After six months, the magazine asked him to do it regularly on a retainer basis. Later, 'India Today' got interested, hired him, and he also spots lapses in 'Outlook' for the 'India Today' editorial team.

So what are the misprints that are found in these magazines? "The most common is spelling mistakes," says Thomas. He gives the example of the word, 'dahlia'.

"Most of the time, sub-editors forget to put the h," he says. "Logically, there should not be an h. But the dahlia is named after the 18th-century Swedish botanist Anders Dahl."

Then there is the word, 'dysentery'. "It ends in ery," he says. "However, most people spell it as dysentry." 'Vacuum' is wrongly spelled, either with one u or two c's.

"The reason for these mistakes is that these are tricky words," he says. "Unless you check it in the dictionary, you are not going to get it right."

There are also grammatical inaccuracies, he says, like wrong tenses and prepositions, and nouns and verbs not being in agreement.

Then there are errors of usage. Take this sentence: 'He washed his hands of'.
"Usually, people use the word, 'off', instead of 'of'," he says.

He gives another example: 'To clean the Aegean stables'. "There is no such expression," he says. "It is the Augean stables, and many people make this mistake."

By Monday morning, he sends an email to 'India Today', pointing out the lapses, with paragraph and page number included. He was not sure about the reaction till he visited the magazine's editorial office in New Delhi a couple of years ago. An editor said, "We wait for your email in the same way we used to wait for our results: with a mix of excitement and nervousness."

So what is his advice to the editorial team? "Check the dictionary as often as possible, especially when you have a doubt," he says.

Apart from magazines, Thomas has also worked for publishers like Macmillan and Oxford University Press (OUP). It began when he was teaching a book of poems published by OUP and spotted numerous mistakes.

"I sent the corrections to OUP and the editors were appalled," he says. Soon, they started sending him books to proofread. "But the problem with working with such publishers is that the editors change regularly, so there is no continuity," he says. Hence, he stopped.

Thomas developed this interest when he worked on several English-Malayalam dictionaries in 1987. "It sparked my interest in words," he says. Also, a few years earlier, he worked for several months in The Daily, a Mumbai newspaper. "There, I was told to do a review of 'Indira Gandhi' by Swraj Paul," he says. "I spotted several misprints and wrote a letter to the author."

The London-based industrialist sent a letter of appreciation and promised to make the changes in the new edition. That sparked a lifelong passion for spotting errors.

Thomas has also spotted mistakes in international magazines like Time. Says Winston Hunter of the editorial office at New York: "Thomas has a remarkably keen eye for typographical and grammatical details. We were most impressed by his compilation of misprints – not to mention embarrassed by how many he found."

As a result of his meticulousness, people appreciate his work. When Thomas sent an email to author-cum-journalist Anita Pratap pointing out errors in an article written by her in 'Outlook' magazine, she replied, "I am amazed at the trouble you have taken. I have learnt a long time ago that it is pointless to worry about typographical mistakes. Your blood pressure just rises."

Dr. Jame Abraham, of West Virginia University, the editor of a book on clinical oncology that Thomas proofread, wrote, "I am glad there are sharp individuals like you around to make sure that what we write is accurate."

Tricky words

Assassination; bizarre; Caribbean; gramophone; Fahrenheit; hippopotamus, infarction; minuscule; pavilion; yacht

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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