Tuesday, June 14, 2011


I read on the Internet that Anthony Weiner’s (or Whiner’s) troubles stem from a typo he committed on Tweeter: @ instead of D, turning a private misdemeanor into a public offense. Typos are pesky things, and must have caused quite some trouble in the history of publishing—someday surely a bestseller on this subject will cash in handsomely.

Yet even if typos don’t ruin someone’s marriage and political career, they can give a fastidious writer a nasty headache. I have had my share of inflicted typos, although some are harmless enough and even a good source of laughter.

For example: I wrote in my review of High in my column in The Westchester Guardian that Kathleen Turner, as a nun in mufti, wore a pants suit, which came out in print as “ants suit.” This had me wondering what an ants suit might be: An outfit impregnated with an insect repellent to protect you in case you stepped on an ant hill? A technological wonder that could transmute ants into an inexpensive textile suitable for suits?

In another recent review—of War Horse—I compared the pleasure of catching the show to receiving my first major literary award. That became my “fist award.” Now this might make sense if I were a pugilist or could put my fists to an unusual type of intercourse, but since neither applied, this fist caused me quite a fit.

Still, typos, I repeat, are of two kinds. The innocent errors that could not have been committed by the writer, and the culpable ones, that could mistakenly be chalked up to the author. That kind truly hurts.

Moreover, it hurts not only the writer, but also the critic reviewing the book or article in which it occurs, unable to determine whether the guilty party was the author or the typesetter, assuming that such a creature still exists and hasn’t been supplanted by a robot.

It is interesting to note that some genuine mistakes can escape censure by not even looking like typos. For example, a “who” for a “whom” has become so firmly lodged in writing as well as parlance that even a strict traditionalist might forgo making an issue of it. But a “whom” for a “who”—an accusative where a simple nominative is called for—is gross and leaves one disgruntled. Yet even the venerable New York Times abounds in this indisputable authorial error, now that it has seen fit to dispense with the luxury of a resident grammarian along with some other niceties.

Similarly, when I read on the Internet the article entitled “The Twitter Typo That Exposed Anthony Weiner,” I feel justified in blaming its author for referring to a hacker “whom [sic] Weiner claimed had cracked his account.” This whom-for-who fallacy has become so popular that it threatens the supremacy of the misplaced nominative in things like “Thank you for inviting Jane and I to your wonderful party.” That one, impossible to gloss over as a typo and ubiquitous, may well become—disastrously—acceptable colloquial English.

I wish I could recall offhand an example of the rare but not unheard-of occurrence of a felicitous typo, which produces a merry verbal gaffe. Something like an elephant that held a midget in his trunk, or the famous student boner,  ‘The Templar asked Rebecca to become his mistress. The brave girl reclined to do so.”

Who knows? A lucky typo may even become accepted usage, say, “ants suit” for an ill-fitting garment that causes skin irritation. But enough about typos and on to their cousin, the misquotation. I am the victim of a particularly irritating one. In a 1971 review of a play called Abelard and Heloise, I wrote, “Diana Rigg, the Heloise, is built, alas, like a brick basilica with inadequate flying buttresses.” This in reference to a nude scene revealing her as somewhat deficient in the chest department.

To be sure, a basilica, unlike a cathedral, does not have flying buttresses; still, liking the alliteration of “brick basilica,” I took this architectural liberty.  Now it seems that someone unfamiliar with basilicas misquoted this as a “brick mausoleum,” in which faulty form it has become just about my only contribution to various anthologies of quotations, as well as to Miss Rigg’s own charming memoir, No Turn Unstoned.  This is unfortunate, because it would suggest some connection between the gifted actress and death, which I never intended, but which makes my sally worse than it was, and destined to haunt me unto my grave—no mausoleum either.


  1. I remember that you called an editor a "Schmata Hari" after she mistakenly changed your "schemata" to "schmata" in one of your theater reviews.

  2. The good news: Anthony Weiner has no future at all in politics.

    The bad news: he does have a future in television, sooner rather than later, perhaps even co-hosting a show with his wife. Yes, THE WEINER REPORT or LIFE WITH THE WEINERS is headed your way. Sponsored by Calvin Klein and Oscar Mayer.

  3. I live in a university town, where typos in the student newspaper never cease to amuse us. One of the better typos was the announcement of an organ recital that left the "i" out of "recital."

  4. Elaine, thank you for your post. I, too, live in a u-town and will add the student paper to my reading. You have prodded me to schedule the yearly physical that I have every five years or so. Just hate it when the doc pulls on that rubber glove and proclaims, "Now, let's take a look!" Always want to respond, "Be my guest -- but don't overstay your welcome."

  5. Poked around Elaine's blogs.

    Musical Assumptions (http://musicalassumptions.blogspot.com/) is a treasure trove for those interested in classical music. Even a music lover/ignoramus such as myself. Hundreds of posts going back to 2005. The writing is superb plus there are many entertaining video and audio links. Everything a blog should be but rarely is.

    Also. Admit I only made it halfway through the Mann novel. But Elaine's FOUR PIECES FROM DOKTOR FAUSTUS is a haunting piece of music clocking in at 12 minutes. Find it at:
    Not that I'm going to try again with the novel.

  6. On the "who/whom" / "I/me" / "he/him" problem growing in our "public conversation", I recall first thinking about this when Mr. Simon had a two- or three-part debate on this very topic with some professor of something who claimed to be an expert in some supposedly pertinent field. The young professor tried to argue in defense of relaxing our standards and allowing the misuses of "who" and "whom" to flood and swallow up our misgivings because, as I dimly recall, language "evolves" and we should "go with the flow" and not try to "freeze change" (all sarcastic paraphrases, not verbatim memories); etc.

    At the time, William F. Buckley had that rather egregiously young-looking professor on Firing Line for one or even two segments to hash this out (though Mr. Simon's absence disappointed me -- particularly as Buckley struck me to be rather softballing the defender of the Who/Whom insouciance). And the latter's demeanor didn't help either: it reminded me of Noam Chomsky, who can seem and sound calm, mature and intelligent while actually saying disturbingly questionable, if not outrageously preposterous, things.

    My theory on all this -- particularly when the Common Man indulges in it (and he seems to be doing so at a metastasizing rate) -- is that there's a curious paradox afoot: the locution "He and I" or "Paul and he" (misused when the accusative is called for) to the Common Ear sounds more dignified, while somehow the accusative forms "him" and "me" have become emotionally associated with a vaguely low class or illiterate aura to be avoided (even among those who otherwise might claim to be "classless and free"). So the obvious solution is to make every pronominal locution high class and literate-sounding; and thus one can never be accused of lowering himself near the gutter of uttering the accusative. (There's also the handy "When in doubt use the word that you think sounds more correct" rule where the untrained ear rules the day.)

    Ironically, an opposing disinclination seems to come into play with the "who/whom" problem, for I don't think the Common Man avoids "whom" because it sounds plebeian, but precisely because it sounds too archaically stuffy. Apparently, some invisible line has been detected there.

    Or maybe the Common Man just doesn't like the sound of the letter M too much:

    me / him / whom -- all jettisoned for I / he / who.

    At any rate, that famous old game show should have been called Whom Do You Trust?. (And on matters like this among others, the answer is John Simon.)

  7. That said,

    In a 1971 review of a play called Abelard and Heloise, I wrote, “Diana Rigg, the Heloise, is built, alas, like a brick basilica with inadequate flying buttresses.” This in reference to a nude scene revealing her as somewhat deficient in the chest department...

    while I can see Luther's nun-wife, for example, as having big boobs (and bricks), somehow I don't picture Heloise requiring a D-cup. Or was this a theater thing -- where breasts (and buttresses) must be as pronounced and projected as voices...?

  8. grammar is my hobby ; so I find some mistakes most disturbing ; he/him, of course ; also who's/whose, one mistake I meet so often that I wonder whether it is not the norm nowadays....