FOR starters in last week’s column, I presented a couple of proofreading errors in two Supreme Court rulings that were brought to my attention by one of its staff, part of whose job is to proofread court decisions and resolutions drafted by a ponente or the designated writer from among the justices. The first glitch is the needless, wickedly subversive presence of the article “a” in a labor dispute ruling, and the second, a rather jolting subject-verb disagreement arising from misuse of the plural “were” in a demand-for-payment ruling.
Right off, a reader who goes by the username zyggy asked me online if those “infallible inadvertent errors”—his words, not mine—could be called “loopholes.” I told him I didn’t think so, for a “loophole” is defined as “an ambiguity or omission in the text through which the intent of a statute, contract, or obligation may be evaded.”
Since those proofreading errors don’t really constitute a legally or logically defensible ground for such evasion, I suggested that both can be more fittingly called a “semantic wormhole.” That’s a more innocuous term that the Urban Dictionary pejoratively defines—only the “wormhole” part, I must admit—as “a phenomenon that has a way of completely absorbing the attention of its user.”
Now let’s go back to the Supreme Court staffer’s letter and take up the rest of his very instructive proofreading predicaments.
Before I forget, though, I still owe him my opinion about his rebuffed proofreading correction of the verb “were” to “was” in the draft of that demand-for-payment ruling, as follows (italicization mine): “As stated in its original decision, it held that the evidence on record categorically showed that the alluded delay in the completion of the subject project were traceable to additional works and change order works required by respondent which were not part of the original agreement.”
His correction, he said in the letter, was returned to him marked by an “x” and with “the series” added to “traceable” to justify the use of the verb “were.”
So here’s my opinion: You were right, and the ponente who refused your proofreading correction from “were” to “was” in that sentence either doesn’t know or forgot how English subject-verb agreement works.
The Supreme Court staffer continues: “In the last decision I proofread, I marked these errata: ‘did not mention of the testimonies’ (delete ‘of’), ‘in the contrary’ (‘in’ to ‘on’) and ‘while it maybe true’ (may be). Happily, the concerned justice’s office adopted my corrections, but as always, I remained uncomfortable until I confirmed these…As you can see, these corrections are those which you would normally miss when you spell-check a document. But since I’m not an English major, sometimes I too am not really sure about the corrections I’ve made. And this is where I seek your help.”
He then presented this third proofreading dilemma: “The minutes I review every week starts with this: ‘The minutes of the preceeding session.’ I had noted that there’s no such word as ‘preceeding’; it should be ‘preceding’ or ‘minutes of the proceedings.’ My correction went unheeded so I just let it be. Am I right or wrong?”
My answer: You’re absolutely right, and the Supreme Court needs to recognize it once and for all for the sake of good English.
And then the letter-writer asked this grammar question, evidently in general and not regarding a particular Supreme Court decision: “What should the verb be in this sentence: ‘He insisted that she (stay, stays or stayed) in the house’?”
Now that’s a really, really tough and devilishly equivocal grammar question! Offhand I’ll say that the answer could be the subjunctive “stay,” the indicative present-tense “stays,” or the indicative past-tense “stayed,” but the explanation is so complicated that it needs another column to give it justice.
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