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:
AP Style tip: New to Stylebook: (sic) is used to show quoted material or person's words include a misspelling, incorrect grammar, odd usage.—
AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) March 24, 2014
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:
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.
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.