Walter Leland Mr. Cronkite

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When a big news story is breaking, like the passing of Walter Cronkite, it's not surprising that reporters and editors might be a little hasty in getting the word out. Jan Freeman of the Boston Globe spotted a search-and-replace error in the Chicago Tribune's online obituary for Cronkite, where all instances of "Cronkite" got replaced by "Mr. Cronkite." Here's a screenshot of the uncorrected version:


Jan writes:

I could get used to this form of address; after all, it's no weirder than "Richard, Cardinal Cushing" or "George Gordon, Lord Byron." But I think a daughter might prefer the feminine form: "Kathy, Ms. Cronkite."

Jan initially called this a Cupertino error, but since there is no spellchecker to blame, I would classify it as a more general search-and-replace error, based on an inaccurately applied style policy. In this case, the style policy is that recently deceased males get called "Mr." by the Tribune.

As I discussed in the post "Incorrections in the newsroom: Cupertino and beyond," the classic example of this is the old canard about a newspaper replacing "back in the black" with "back in the African American." Turns out this story originated as a practical joke by a prankster at the Fresno Bee in 1990, but in that post I provide a couple of real examples of search-and-replace errors — including the fascinating Reuters report that revealed, "Queen Elizabeth has 10 times the lifespan of workers and lays up to 2,000 eggs a day." (Blame that on a search-and-replace of "the queen" with "Queen Elizabeth.") And more recently, a conservative Christian news site managed to change the name of sprinter Tyson Gay to "Tyson Homosexual."

[Update: The Trib has already corrected the article. But the screenshot lives on.]

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25 Comments »

  1. Robert Coren said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 11:30 pm

    Well, they're all symptoms of the same attitude: Why think when you can get an automaton to do it for you?

  2. Ben Martin said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 11:34 pm

    Well, but it's not really about THINKING, is it? The purpose of search and replace, like most automation, is not to reduce the amount of thinking necessary, but to reduce the amount of automation necessary. Of course, as these examples show, often using automation requires MORE thinking, not less.

  3. Ben Martin said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 11:35 pm

    Er "reduce the amount of repetition" not "automation" which of course makes no sense…

  4. chris said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 11:38 pm

    I think I'm with Robert on this one. It's all rather reminiscent of people who try to use machine translation instead of employing a real person.

  5. Sridhar Ramesh said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 11:45 pm

    Well, really, why should you waste time laboriously thinking when you get an automaton to do it for you? You shouldn't; you should have automata do as much as they can, and spend your mental effort on other, more productive matters.

    The problem comes in when it turns out you can't actually get an automaton to do <whatever> properly for you.

  6. Faith said,

    July 18, 2009 @ 12:08 am

    I find it rather quaint. It makes me think of George Gordon, Lord Byron

  7. Tom said,

    July 18, 2009 @ 12:14 am

    In Douglas Adams' "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" a lot of trouble is caused by an electronic monk that was designed to do people's believing for them.

  8. Lazar said,

    July 18, 2009 @ 12:41 am

    Somewhat related question: why are cardinals sometimes referred to with "cardinal" between their first and last names, as in "Bernard Cardinal Law"?

  9. Victoria Martin said,

    July 18, 2009 @ 2:24 am

    why are cardinals sometimes referred to with "cardinal" between their first and last names, as in "Bernard Cardinal Law"?

    I presume because the title is "Cardinal + Last Name", so if the writer wants to mention the Cardinal's first name, it has to come before the title. "Cardinal Bernard Law" isn't a legitimate title (compare the various sub-divisions of the English aristocracy – George, "Lord Byron", as mentioned above, versus "Lord Peter" Wimsey. To call the former Lord George Byron would imply that he was the younger son of a Duke or Marquis, as opposed to the holder of the title "Lord Byron" in his own right. To call the latter "Lord Wimsey" would be simply wrong as the the title "Lord Wimsey" doesn't exist (and okay, technically Lord Peter Wimsey doesn't exist either…).

  10. Darryl McAdams said,

    July 18, 2009 @ 3:05 am

    Surely search-and-replace actually requires MORE forethought than going through and doing manual replace: to do it right, you have to a) demonstrate that search-and-replace will solve the problem, and b) determine what you need to search and replace on. Not doing both, but still doing search and replace instead of manual modification, is surely the result of some cost-benefit analysis!

    ;)

  11. Cheryl Thornett said,

    July 18, 2009 @ 3:44 am

    The formula 'forename + title + surname' makes more visual sense when a comma is placed before the title as in Bernard, Cardinal Law and George Gordon, Lord Byron.

  12. dr pepper said,

    July 18, 2009 @ 4:17 am

    I think what makes those formulas seem strange is the lack of an "of". We're more used to infix titles having a domain. So "Philomon, Baron Barkworthy" comes across as off rhythm, whereas "Philoman, Baron of Barkfields" sounds perfectly natural.

  13. Bob Violence said,

    July 18, 2009 @ 5:00 am

    The "Cardinal" thing might be an instance of hypercorrection — in Latin the title goes in the middle, i.e. "Bernardus Franciscus S.R.E. Cardinalis Law" ("S.R.E." refers to the College of Cardinals). The Vatican itself uses "Cardinal Bernard Francis Law" in English-language texts.

  14. Tom said,

    July 18, 2009 @ 8:25 am

    The Boston Globe has a history of being perceived as anti-Catholic. I believe that the paper either did or does insist on the form "Cardinal Bernard Law" as opposed to "Bernard Cardinal Law", which of course has had the effect of adding a tiny bit to that perception.

  15. Dan T. said,

    July 18, 2009 @ 8:39 am

    At one point, the Archbishop of Manila was Cardinal Sin.

  16. language hat said,

    July 18, 2009 @ 10:47 am

    I believe that the paper either did or does insist on the form "Cardinal Bernard Law" as opposed to "Bernard Cardinal Law", which of course has had the effect of adding a tiny bit to that perception.

    If the Vatican itself uses "Cardinal Bernard Law," objecting to the paper's usage would indeed seem to mean one is being more Catholic than the Pope.

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 18, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

    Per wikipedia, there are currently 5 non-retired Roman Catholic archbishops in the U.S. who are cardinals. A quick check on their respective archdiocesan websites indicated 2 using the A. Cardinal B. pattern and 3 (including Cardinal Law's successor in Boston) using the Cardinal A. B. pattern. (These were the first usages I saw on each website: no guarantee that any particular website is completely internally consistent in this regard or even that the first usage to catch my eye is used 50%+ of the time on the website as a whole.) An issue of English usage where there are acceptable alternatives used in free variation? With such variation occurring in an institution stereotyped (perhaps sometimes unfairly) for uniformity and legalism? Is such chaos and anarchy a sign of the End Times?

    I will say that the A. Cardinal B. pattern is bit odd, because in the A, Lord B. pattern, B. is not the surname but the title (unless the two happen to be the same), whereas with Lord A. B. for younger sons etc. B. is the surname instead of the title. The C. of E. usage where the Archbishop of Canterbury known in British papers as Dr Williams signs his name in formal contexts as +Rowan Cantuar is reflective of the title-trumping-surname pattern, but I guess that's not in current R.C. usage. The fellow in Boston seems to prefer Cardinal Sean to Cardinal O'Malley but the one thing he is not is +Sean Bostoniensis, or +Sean Mariae de Victoria (for his title-as-cardinal of the Basilica of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome).

  18. Maria said,

    July 18, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

    I've always thought that the search functionality is useful because when reading I tend to read what I think should be there as opposed to what actually is there, especially when reading from a screen. The problem is not searching and replacing, but allowing the program to do it without supervision by using "Replace all".

  19. baylink said,

    July 18, 2009 @ 11:22 pm

    The 'cardinal in the middle' styling is an old Catholic ecclesiastical usage, which, according to a source I've read, but cannot cite just now, changed in the late 80s or early 90s sometime.

    Cardinal should now come first in all references, civil or religious. I'll try to source that tomorrow.

  20. Mark Etherton said,

    July 20, 2009 @ 9:49 am

    The trouble with dr pepper's theory that the lack of an 'of' makes the titles sound strange is that many, perhaps most, of the British titles the formula would cover do not have an 'of' in normal usage. Although barons and viscounts do have a territorial part of their title, which is preceded by 'of', it's not usually used. For example, Lord Mandelson's full title is Baron Mandelson of Foy in the County of Herefordshire and of Hartlepool in the County of Durham (surely enough 'ofs' for any one person), but he is always just Lord Mandelson or, more formally, Peter, Lord Mandelson (although in practice Lord Peter Mandelson is almost universal). Earls more likely to have an 'of' in the main part of their title, but even so there are still, for example, Earl Peel and Earl Attlee. Only Dukes and Marquesses are always D or M of somewhere. Indeed, to my English ear, of the two examples dr pepper suggests, "Philomon, Baron Barkworthy" sounds perfectly correct, if antiquated, since it would normally be Philomon, Lord Barkworthy, while "Philoman, Baron of Barkfields" just sounds wrong.

  21. richard said,

    July 20, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

    Cardinal Sin remains my favorite prelate, simply because of his name. I love examples of last names fitting the person's occupation, like the osteopath Dr. Bonebrake, or my childhood dentist, Dr. Cary (part of entire family of dentists, the dental Carys).
    What would be the best family name for a linguist?

  22. q said,

    July 20, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

    This reminds me of the English localized version of the underwater mystery visual novel Ever17. One of the protagonists is referred to through most of the story simply as 少年 ("Boy" in Japanese), and they originally decided to translate that as "Youth". But then they changed their minds later, and used a search-and-replace pass through the script to change it to "Kid", for some reason. This resulted in "you think" changing to "Kidink" in several places (as in "What do Kidink about this?"). Surprising how little proofreading can go into even something like a game localization, which doesn't need to be shipped immediately like a press release would.

  23. Andrew said,

    July 20, 2009 @ 7:42 pm

    Further to Mark Etherton's point: all peers other than Dukes are commonly referred to as Lord So-and-so, with which 'of' is never used. So for instance the Earl of Shrewsbury, whose formal title does include an 'of', would be known as Lord Shrewsbury, without one.

  24. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 20, 2009 @ 8:37 pm

    Along the lines of Cardinal Sin, the martindale.com directory discloses that there are currently two law firms in the U.S. (I infer independent of each other rather than branches of a single enterprise) named Lawless & Lawless, one in San Francisco and the other in Massachusetts. I have a vague recollection of once having come across a perhaps-now-defunct law firm named either Savage & Lawless or Lawless & Savage, but google is not backing me up on either possibility.

    And if the reports are true that in Swedish the generic word for someone with the late Mr. Cronkite's job is "cronkiter," maybe it works for him as sort of a special case?

  25. Lugubert said,

    July 21, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

    J. W. Brewer wrote,
    "And if the reports are true that in Swedish the generic word for someone with the late Mr. Cronkite's job is "cronkiter," maybe it works for him as sort of a special case?"

    Google "cronkiter" and you'll find all hits are in English. Smells of myth. I, Swede, 66, multilingual professional translator, have never seen or heard that word in any language. I'm afraid (read: convinced) that Mr. C is totally unknown by an overwhelming majority of Swedes.

    If, never the less, a similar word would have been adopted into Swedish by the cognoscenti, I'm at least fairly sure that the for Swedish very odd -er would immediately have been replaced by a more normal nomen agentis ending like -erare.

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