I’d be a rich copy editor if I had $1 for every time I’ve seen – or, more importantly, removed – a too-common double-up in news and feature stories.
A simple word, the, has this annoyingly inexplicable tendency to appear as identical twins in copy and, most embarrassingly, this unwanted duplication is not detected by busy writers before they send their efforts on for publication.
It can happen if they are interrupted while typing a sentence. In a busy newsroom this occurs rather frequently: it might be a colleague or visitor asking a question, a superior wanting important details or a telephone call, expected or not.
As a writer and editor, it’s my experience that this faux pas most commonly happens when the first the falls at the end of one line and the second the sits at the beginning of the next.
It can also happen anywhere when a rushed writer excises some words to splice another two sentence fragments together. They may miss this additional tiny word because they are more focussed on merging the ideas than on linguistic minutiae.
Of course writers using standard word-processing software, such as Word, will be aided by spell-checkers underlining the second iteration of the word. (You do use a spell-checker, don’t you?)
But newspapers often use proprietary production software systems that may or may not automatically flag such errors. In any case, a really rushed reporter may not have time to subject their story to a full spell check. So the human check mechanism must come into play. And it is often imperfect.
Missing this duplication possibly has most to do with the human mind being conditioned to almost “read over” functional words such as the, a and, indeed, the whole range of personal pronouns.
[By the way, the inspiration for this posting came from a local version of a touching US news story that broke here in Australia yesterday (Thursday, September 5). I once worked with the online news crew who would have put this version of the story together and they are very capable and professional, but operate on very light resources and work on really tight turnaround times. Like all writers and editors, they are human. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure they’d blanch at this oversight.]