The pedantic, censorious quality of “sic”

Jessica Mitford, in The American Way of Death,* quotes a text that uses compliment when complement was intended, and adds [sic] to indicate this. What’s of interest here is the footnote she then appends:

I do not like the repeated use of sic. It seems to impart a pedantic, censorious quality to the writing. I have throughout made every effort to quote the funeral trade publications accurately; the reader who is fastidious about usage will hereafter have to supply his own sics.

This “pedantic, censorious quality” is sometimes insinuated and sometimes unmistakeable. Sic – not an abbreviation but a Latin word meaning thus or so – can usefully clarify that a speaker said or wrote just as they are quoted to have done. But it can also serve as a sneer, an unseemly tool to mock a trivial error or an utterance of questionable pedigree.

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, echoing Mitford, says the use of sic “may be defensive, but its overuse is offensive”. Robert Burchfield in his revision of Fowler says it provides “reviewers and controversialists” with “a neat and compendious form of criticism”. Essentially, sic can be a snob’s delight.

Sic has been in the news lately – in journalism circles at any rate – because it was added to the AP Stylebook:

This ruling is unfortunately open to many interpretations and therefore much uncertainty, and it is susceptible to misinformation and misuse. The line between correct and incorrect usage is nowhere near as clear-cut as is often assumed or as style guides tend to suggest.

A “misspelling” may be a legitimate variant. “Incorrect grammar” is a grey area, not least because of the popular but mistaken belief that nonstandard means incorrect and that grammaticality is absolute. “Odd usage” (or “peculiar”, used elsewhere) is more subjective still.

In a considered analysis at Copyediting.com, Mark Allen expresses similar misgivings:

Sic has a hard time being neutral. It’s the Latin-speaker’s sniff at improper language. There is a risk that it will be selectively applied to mock those who the writer thinks should know better.

A case in point: Mark’s use of who in “to mock those who the writer thinks should know better” is fully and formally grammatical, because it’s “who… should know better”. But many writers and subeditors would hypercorrect it to whom, such is the degree of confusion over the proper use of whom – especially in that very construction.

Earlier this month the NYT’s usage blog After Deadline acknowledged that the paper “[stumbles] regularly over who and whom. And as I’ve noted before, our most common problem seems to be using the objective-case ‘whom’ when ‘who’ is needed.” Regularly? They’re not kidding:

NYT After Deadline - who vs whom confusion

In a way, the NYT is asking for trouble by holding to a very formal line on whom which has been largely abandoned in normal usage. But it’s a good illustration of how unsure and ill-informed even professional writers and editors can be over a common aspect of grammar.

Combine that ignorance with a licence to sic, throw in the popular habit of triumphalism over minor and imaginary mistakes, and the trouble may redouble.

Update:

John E. McIntyre follows up at You Don’t Say: “There is a hazard that you will employ sic to identify a usage to which no exception need be taken. . . . At The [Baltimore] Sun we have actively discouraged the use of sic in copy, because it is nearly impossible to use it without looking snotty.”

*

* A late addition to the nonfiction shortlist for the inaugural Daphne Awards, of which I’m a judge. If you browse the list you’ll see several books I’ve discussed here in recent weeks (well, discussed linguistic items therein). I’ve also been quoting from the Daphne books on my Tumblr, and am very glad to have been prompted to read them.

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71 Responses to The pedantic, censorious quality of “sic”

  1. “‘Incorrect grammar’ is a grey area, not least because of the popular but mistaken belief that nonstandard means incorrect and that grammaticality is absolute.” This sentence just made my day. :)

  2. Harry Lake says:

    In use sic quite often in my work as a translator. Authors quite often misquote passages in English, so it is a useful way of letting the reader (and, of course, the client) know it’s not my fault!

    (I want to italicize ‘sic’ and ‘my’ in ‘my fault’, but don’t know how…)

    • I was thinking just the same thing about using sic in translations. It’s very common in Japanese pop culture for bands/groups to have names, album titles, or concert tour names in English (to name but a few examples), but not proper English. Yet, since those things are proper names, they shouldn’t be “corrected,” so I just add a sic.

    • Avattoir says:

      And not just in translations. I’ve thought, until now, that the term meant ‘spelling is correct’, used in the context of quoting or essentially quoting the use of a word, with a particular spelling, by some one else. Taken that way, it never occurred to me that I was being condescending at all, and I still feel so; rather, I was indicating, in essence, ‘Look, this isn’t my choice of spelling, it’s Ferdy Dongle’s – so, if you’ve a problem with it, don’t think of getting all snippy with me, take it up with Dongle’.

    • Sarma V V says:

      Client is the operative. But, surprisingly, tutors while evaluating dissertations object if the original error/ colloquialism is repeated, even when the reference is given in quotes.

  3. Stan says:

    Sharon: And there I was, worried that I was repeating myself. :-)

    Harry: I use it too, occasionally, and I welcome its appropriate use when I’m reading. But it’s also open to unnecessary and ignoble use.
    You can italicise here by putting i in angle brackets, /i in angle brackets to close. Ditto u to underline and blockquote to indent.

  4. On “sic”, fear of criticism and avoidance of “who” & “whom”: recently I have heard media reporters (and others) replace these with “which” after a preposition, as in “people, many of which…”

  5. Sic is pretty arrogant when used more than once. Whenever I see it employed more than once in a single publication, I wonder of the extent to which the reference is worthy of such.

    I would also never encourage the use of sic for grammatical issues; “back in the day” people wrote differently, especially when using the word “which” where “that” ought to be employed — at least by today’s grammar.

    Nice post

    • Tuaim says:

      I have no qualms being quaint. I do float through the years in my syle. I hope not to be annoying. I can’t write with everymind in mind. The usage depends on the flow. It’s all wordcolor.

  6. Joseph Delany says:

    Dr. Jones will not meet with his classes today. He reports that he is
    il. (sic)

  7. wisewebwoman says:

    Never have I been more amused than when I see the frequent splattering of “sics” in the Daily Mail, the most ungrammatical and ill-spelt newspaper of all time.

    XO
    WWW

  8. Roger says:

    Re sneering through sic — quotation marks may also suggest condescension, though not always; sic is stronger.

    Re sic as open to interpretation — yes, since language isn`t mathematics, it usually is open in all sorts of ways.

    Re usage — things come and go. This morning I heard “nosy parker”,
    which I didn’t expect to hear locally (Mb, Canada), though the user assured me she is a nosy parker full time. The phrase gets a comment in one of G. Orwell’s essays. The nose was a leading sense organ for him, and generally is for all. Slang dicts probably have a great deal to say about the nose. Then there was Gogol’s short story, and Cyrano; and prominent in portraiture too, the nose.

  9. Stan says:

    Ed: That’s one way around the problem, though some will find it unsatisfactory to say the least.

    TFP: Multiple use in one publication can be justified, I find; not so much in one quotation. I’m tempted to take you up on that “ought” and “today’s grammar”, but instead I’ll pop a link here to a post on that vs. which.

    Joseph: Ailing Dr. Jones.

    WWW: Since I avoid it whenever possible, I’ll have to take your word for that. But even the reputable Guardian was so error prone that it was nicknamed the Grauniad.

    Roger: Yes, particularly the use of scare quotes, whose use (like that of sic) should generally be minimised.

  10. […] I read this: Sentence First: The pedantic, censorious quality of “sic” Had to look up a couple of words (eek!) but then I understood and it was completely worth it! […]

  11. David Morris says:

    When I was at university last century, the student newspaper printed a letter/manifesto by a candidate for student president. It was riddled with errors – of the prescriptivist and descriptivist kinds. The editor of the newspaper did not like the candidate, so inserted ‘[sic]‘ after every occurrence.

  12. marc leavitt says:

    Stan:

    To me, the use of “sic” in 2014 trumpets elitism. When I was at school, reading academic texts, “sic” seemed endemic. It was also snotty, bringing forth in my mind, the image of a sanctimonious, self-satisfied, pince-nez bespectacled professor, standing resignedly behind the lecturn, sighing, and smiling tightly, before casting pearls of wisdom at the gruntlings in the lecture hall.

    AP’s stylebook now decrees
    The use of “sic,” if you please.
    Does that seem a bit too snide?
    It’s okay! AP’s the guide

  13. As an English language student I have never personally found the need to include sic within any pieces of work. I think for the most part ‘errors’ or variant forms are clearly identifiable and if the meaning value remains then the use of sic adds nothing except appearing pedantic. The fact that everyone has there own ideolect means that one author’s classification of another’s grammatical usage as wrong simply doesn’t hold. As a descriptivist I see no right or wrong use of language but rather that a flexible language reflective of its users communicative needs.

  14. adamf2011 says:

    What about the punctuation that encloses sic? I’m pretty sure this post is the first time I’m seeing sic in parentheses instead of square brackets. Not trying to be pedantic about this — I certainly wouldn’t sic your parentheses! — just curious.

  15. V says:

    Interesting. I don’t necessarily condemn using sic. Writers, understandably, don’t want grammar and spelling errors to be attributed to themselves. At the same time, I do think it can be overused and come off as snobby, particularly when the correctness of a “mistake” is open to interpretation.

  16. flissw says:

    Does this discussion mean that I (a proofreader) should stop using ‘sic?’ as a shorthand query to the author when a quotation they have used looks wrong, for fear of sounding snotty? (Pedantry is a job requirement, so the problem is to find the fine diplomatic line between correction and offense.)

  17. I’m not going to flip any tables over because someone misuses who or whom, but that’s a pretty easy rule to learn. We sent a monkey into space, for goodness’ sake.

  18. I be [sic] so sik [sic] of how much peoples [sic] use sic/[sic]

  19. We simply have to do all that’s possible to overcome today’s obsession with the supposed horrors of offending people. That’s always about control. Reverse snobbery is bad. Sic isn’t that bad except in people’s imaginations.

  20. akki says:

    Reblogged this on shayaris.

  21. ravensmarch says:

    “Sic” semper tyrannus est? Naw. I view it as tool– like a hammer, it’s got a proper use, but one should resist the urge to beat people over the head with it.

  22. … sooo I may or may not have had any idea what ‘sic’ actually meant or even for what it was used, so thanks for teaching me that.
    Sic actually seems like a very useful tool for some situations, the comments have already mentioned a few with translating. I think using archaic texts could probably benefit from a sic where it might be hard to understand…but I guess it’s also not surprising it’s misused and overused.
    Even though I now understand sic, I don’t think I’ll really be using it that much myself when quoting others. Even if I do consider myself a grammar Nazi when it comes to (very) basic grammar. I’d like to see correct usage but there’s no need to be rude about it, and if you’re correcting someone who may not even see your correction when you quote them, it does no good; I think it truly is just snooty.

  23. segmation says:

    According to Wikipedia, The use of sic greatly increased in the mid-twentieth century. That to me is a long time ago. Interesting we still use sic!

  24. Insult can never be given, it can only be taken. Pedantic lectures directed at an individual in a derogatory way will only sting if they let it under their skin.

    All the power rests with the recipient. It’s kung fu communication: simply step aside and all your charging assailant’s momentum becomes his own problem. A swing and a miss.

    Ignore insult and pity the giver. After all. people project their own fears upon the world so, naturally, they use the scare tactics on others that work on themselves. Imagine a person so insecure that a stranger’s insecurity is a threat.

  25. jjbiener says:

    I have to be honest here. I exclusively use “sic” to be snotty. I use it to take down those who have an arrogant attitude and who delight in trying to make others look stupid. I feel justified in exposing their own guilt in such matters.

  26. Thank you! Excellently written piece on usage of ‘sic,’ particularly like the ‘nonstandard does not mean incorrect.’ I may be using that as a frequent comeback.

  27. Avia says:

    I just use sic to denote a misspelling when I’m quoting something, and not more than once in a quote. I don’t think that would be snotty, although I agree with you that using it more than once may seem like that.

  28. bonsaimartin says:

    The line between correct and incorrect usage is nowhere near as clear-cut as is often assumed or as style guides tend to suggest.

    Can we please say this more often, in a louder voice, with bells and whistles on it?

    And on that topic, you might find this of interest: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7E-aoXLZGY

  29. MatthewD says:

    Intersting article, I have always thought sic sounded a bit sneery.

  30. Good post, and it made me rethink my usage of the annotation. Interesting to me as well that one commenter above notes usage greatly increased in the middle of the 20th century. I am guessing this had to do as much with the increased visibility and more outspoken diversity of the sixties as anything else.

    It also brought me back to the [sic] and tired routine I grew up with from Bill Cosby. Back before YouTube, when there were 12 inch LPs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nq9yWXtI6aA. That particular bit is 5:10 minutes in.

    Glad to have been introduced to you through Freshly Pressed.

  31. Khai says:

    I like sic used sparingly, like salt or cayenne pepper.

  32. Sic is just as snotty (and let’s face it – just as empowering, sometimes) as the evil “finger quotes.”

    Fantastic, fun, post.
    Write on…

  33. I must beg to differ with the masses. In formal writing, a singular adherence to proper form, syntax, and grammar is essential to the preservation of a written language. The former power and beauty of the English tongue is rapidly evaporating in the face of unrelenting modern expressionism. Sic away, people!

  34. David Morris says:

    Last year I wrote a masters dissertation on language contact between the British settlers/colonisers/invaders and the Indigenous peoples of Australia (mainly in the Sydney region) in the late 18th century. I quoted from published accounts, letters and diaries of the time, which displayed a wide range of spelling and usage. I simply added a note to the introduction saying ‘All quotations are [sic] according to the most reliable source.’

  35. Frank says:

    Interesting.. But I think ‘sic’ is OK with misspelled words; it’s a decent way of upholding the publication’s standards. As for incorrect grammar, I guess no need for ‘sic’; readers should be intelligent enough to see the quote marks, which separate the quoted person from the publication. I’m not sure I made sense. lol

  36. bob says:

    love…it makes me consider how my boyfriend feels every time he speaks English…even his boss makes fun of his bad English…but to him everything has sic

  37. inesephoto says:

    As everything else, using [sic] is a matter of tact, ethics and common sense. Good reading, thank you!

  38. This is how the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association stipulates how mistakes should be handled: “If any incorrect spelling, punctuation, or grammar in the source might confuse readers, insert the word sic, italicized and bracketed, immediately after the error in the quotation” (p. 172).

  39. stuartfound says:

    Glad I’m by no means the only one in the dark when it comes to the use of ‘whom’

  40. I read a lot of comments. When mistakes appear, they are jumped on by many. They complain that the editors haven’t done their job, or that there are no editors at all watching over the writers.

    If you don’t use (sic), the comment section goes nuts.

  41. I would never add [sic] for a debatable point of grammar or for an unusual expression or turn of phrase. But I would definitely use it for a blatant error such as a misspelling that the original author had not fixed.
    Adding [sic] is also very useful in quoting, when there is a problem such as a missing word in the original source. A [sic] indicates that the problem is in the source and that you quoted the source accurately.
    I really like the idea suggested above of the “all material is [sic] unless otherwise indicated” disclaimer. That is a great way to preserve the integrity of the quote while verifying that it has been reported verbatim.

  42. Stan says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, which I’ve enjoyed reading. I wish I had time to reply to each, but I don’t! Some points:

    I use sic occasionally, and I know there are niches where it’s particularly useful. My objection is to its overuse and abuse, which I think the AP’s new ruling could encourage. Given the potential for misuse, it’s important that sic be applied cautiously and judiciously.

    AP’s use of parentheses struck me too, since I’m accustomed to seeing sic in square brackets.

    On who vs. whom: If it were really so easy to learn the rules, we would all have learned them. Evidently it isn’t. At least whom is rarely needed in everyday English, except in certain set phrases and immediately after prepositions.

    On “singular adherence to proper form”: grammaticality is not absolute, and correctness varies with context. Even Standard English is far from uniform.

  43. amlakyaran says:

    very nice post…

  44. John Cowan says:

    Newspapers historically didn’t have square brackets available in their typefaces, so parentheses were substituted.

  45. Apparently, being ‘offended’ by bad grammar is a thing nowadays. Or rather, bad grammar offends some people nowadays. These people, the offend-ees, have a penchant for blowing their supercilious trumpets at misplaced semicolons and misspellings, and making what they consider clever memes regarding how much the misuse of their and they’re and there knots there (sic) knickers – if you didn’t already know. McFuckery. If we’ve collectively become so bored that we’re finding reason to get annoyed in bad grammar, and using others’ bad grammar as a means of gaining some sense of self-superiority – well… bah! It’s sic-ening. (It isn’t really; just a bit sad, is all.) Thanks for the post. To steal the words of a well known former politician, I’ll be back.

  46. I was hoping that was a Fake AP Stylebook twit message… sadly, I believe that the real Fake AP Stylebook has yet to decree flippantly on what the true meaning of “sic” truly is. So, for now we’ll have to make do with this amateur attempt:

    “Use (sic) after any word over 9 letters. You probably spelled it wrong and ‘Geek Girls’ will laugh at you regardless (sic)”

    http://www.lordandrei.com/blog/?p=3069

    Ah, good enough.

  47. Sic article yo. Seriously though I suck at grammar and I write for a living. Ask my mom she’ll tell you the same thing. If I knew what ironic was I’d probably say something like that but my only notion of that word is an Alanis Morissette song from the 90′s I’ve been told is quite sophistical. And I’m not that sophisticated so there you have it… Anyway I do at times have to write a quote and what I do in these situations I find to be highly unethical bordering on libelous and criminal and I recommend it to everyone. When I see a mistake I just correct it. If someone calls me out on it I say I accidentally corrected it. Makes life easier for everyone and no one ever calls you out on it. I’m often edited as well which I appreciate usually on some level, but can I say nothing gives me as much joy on earth perhaps as when an editor incorrectly edits something of mine? Holy crap it’s a feeling of snobbish superiority unlike any other and I revel in it. Which is why I don’t draw attention to my own edits… just in case.

  48. Stan says:

    John: Ah! That explains it.

    Humans Are Weird: Thanks for subscribing. Some people like to feel outraged, and language offers a steady supply if they think they know a bit about it. I looked at this in more detail in a recent post about the language police.

    PEF Web-Mister: Sometimes it can be tricky telling the difference between the real AP stylebook and the fake one. I suspect neither party would have it any other way.

    Please Return to Owner: I don’t know anyone who sucks at grammar in their native language, though people’s proficiency with the standard dialect obviously varies. I enjoyed your comment a lot, for what it’s worth.

  49. When writing Genealogy pieces I use ‘sic’ more frequently. In this case you really have to report your findings as they appear and surnames are frequently misspelled.

  50. Sarma V V says:

    Great thoughts. Like two watches, two grammarians may naver agree; still it’s useful to have a debate.

  51. EmotionLess says:

    ur blog is fantastic…!!
    i juss started writing..need ur views as it will boost my writing zeal..:)
    i hope u will pay a visit :)

  52. Clyde Lied says:

    Though I may “sneer” once in awhile, (none I can think of right now), I still think I’ll keep using sic whenever necessary; if I’m already quoting someone, I’m probably going to think their original information is valuable-enough for someone else to look into, so it may help them to find it if they know they original – mistakes & all. (Time and times change things fast-enough as it is.)
    Also, as you mentioned, it may help to point-out a little-known but acceptable variant. Someone seeing “sic” may think to look it up and find it is a variant. So any writer “sneering” may have to eat those words some day; which usually doesn’t hurt too much.

  53. Stan says:

    Sarma: Exactly.

    Clyde: It’s really just the unnecessary use I have a problem with. Different people will assess that necessity differently, of course.

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