It Is Almost Always Wrong to Use [sic]

It Is Almost Always Wrong to Use SicThere is a time in any nonfiction writer’s life when they get good enough to use [sic]. And do they use it! It’s such a wonderfully passive-aggressive way to attack other writers. Generally, such writers eventually move past that point and never use it as a weapon. But they also learn that it is almost never necessary — especially on the internet.

Based on how most people use [sic], they must think that it means, “This is wrong.” But that is not it at all. Indeed, while it often does highlight errors, that is not its purpose.

What Is [sic]?

[sic] is short for sic erat scriptum. According to Google Translate, this means “thus it is written.” But it is better to think of as “literally” or “as written.”

And that’s all that [sic] means: the words before are meant as written. So I could write, “I’m felling spacd ot toda [sic].” And this is one of its most appropriate uses: to call attention to your bad humor attempts.

Traditionally, [sic] was used to indicate that anything in quoted text that might confuse the reader is there intentionally. So in quoting Shakespeare, I might write, “And all clouds that lowr’d vpon [sic] our houfe [sic].”[1]

Clearly, in this case, the [sic] is alerting to the user to the oddness. But more than that, it is saying, “This is how it is actually printed; I didn’t screw up.” And that’s very important because I’ve seen typos in quotes that writers introduced. I’ve done it myself when transcribing text.

Fix Errors in Quotations

But here’s the thing: [sic] is not meant to call attention to errors. And it is perfectly okay to fix any obvious errors and typos.

I hear people objecting. “What?! How dare you change another writer’s prose! You monster!”

There are several things wrong with this. First, only do this when it is clear. I’m sure you’ve seen things I’ve written here like, “He went to a a store.” Is there any doubt I meant to write, “He went to a store”?

Another issue is that editors and typesetters often put errors into a writer’s work. And that was even truer before writers and publishers had computers.

Only the worst pedants will complain unless you somehow change the quotation in a fundamental way.

But if it bothers you, put the changes inside square brackets.

Never Use [sic] as a Weapon

Fowler’s entry on [sic] is more of a rant condemning the use of it as a weapon. And rightly so! This usage is totally unacceptable.

And in the age of the internet, [sic] is almost never necessary because the reader already knows that any quotes are not transcribed. They are rather copied-and-pasted. So it is exactly what was written.

I suspect we will eventually get to the point were [sic] is primarily used as I first did in this article: to point out something the writer is saying.

But my main point is this: don’t be a jerk. In the end, you will only look small to the people who matter.

Afterword

You should probably be able to guess, given the intensity of this article, that I am a former sinner. So don’t take my hectoring personally. It’s more self-criticism than anything.


[1] I don’t know enough about printing to say if any of this is actually different in substance. But it clearly is typographically, so if you require it, imagine I am writing about changes in printing.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

6 thoughts on “It Is Almost Always Wrong to Use [sic]

  1. Yeah, I’ve done it. And it is kinda crummy. If you’re disagreeing with somebody’s point, make that clear. (The only good that comes out of Thomas Friedman’s continued career is Matt Taibbi ripping on his books.) If you’re ripping on someone for poor grammar, let ye without sin, etc.

    About the only instance where [sic] might be appropriate is when you’re quoting some stuff that’s stone crazy. In the post-“Onion” world, it can sometimes be hard to tell when somebody’s writing a crazy thing or parodying crazy writing. Billy Bob Neck was doing parody. Joe Bob Briggs was originally doing parody, then converted to the dark side when his serious research didn’t get enough readers. (Oh, noes! Your serious writing wasn’t lucrative! Join the club, pal.)

    I think it had more of a use in the pre-internet age of writing. Now, simply by posting a link to the crazy thing you’re quoting, it’s clear you aren’t making this shit up.

    • I’m talking about normal circumstances. However, in that example, I’m not sure it is necessary because you would be making it clear in your response text.

  2. Makes sense I guess, but I’m not sure I’ve actually seen [sic] used as you suggest, to validate ones own prose or typography. And are you suggesting it’s OK to correct someones grammar? I’m thinking of my pet peeve, the reversal of subject and object when using “endear”. Also, don’t spellcheckers make unwanted changes when you copy/paste? I’ve never thought about it.

    • I know that fixing “errors” is controversial. And one really does have to be careful! But would it make sense to quote a 16th-century playwright using their spelling? (Sometimes, but not generally.) I think we are trying to do two things: (1) represent the original author correctly and (2) inform the reader in the best way possible. (This is why it annoys me when academics publish quotes in the original Greek or Latin or whatever. This is gratefully a thing of the past.)

      As for its use: it really is widespread. I’ve certainly had many occasions to remove it from other writer’s work. And my own! Sometimes it is really hard to resist. When someone has really pissed you off, it’s hard not to make a glancing comment about their incompetence. But a moment’s thought reveals that you are likely making mistakes that can be pointed out. The bigger issue to me is just that it makes the writer look small.

      There is another side to this. For a period of time, I went [sic] crazy. I wasn’t doing it to make authors look stupid. I was doing it out of a sense that I should make anything that was a little odd clear to the reader. This ended in some comical text. For example, my style guide says not to use periods in abbreviations. So if the text included “Mr.” I put [sic] after it. See: I wasn’t lying about “crazy.” Eventually, I just fixed the quoted material.

      The only spellcheck I know that changes words is the stupid one on my phone and that drives me crazy! I haven’t seen it elsewhere, but I wouldn’t be surprised. In an effort to make life easier, computer programmers often mess things up.

    • Thanks! It was great! One of my many heuristics for determining if a writer is good is to ask how they feel about editors. Although there are problems between writers and editors, in general, they love each other. One thing I’ve hated watching has been less and less use of editors. I’ve had a number of great ones. But mostly, publishers don’t care that much.

      Online, most people are line editors — doing everything. That works well for me because I’m not a great copy editor. But I’m reasonably good at a broad range of editing tasks. Being a fact checker is probably the hardest part. I suppose it is true that you have to be devoted to the truth to do the job effectively.

      However, I don’t think people are acknowledging editors more now because of some kind of nostalgia for the days when we just assumed everyone would accept obvious truths. I suspect it has more to do with the growing understanding that people don’t stand alone. Behind every great writer is a great editor and so on. At least, that’s the way it looks when it comes to literary types. Of course, there was never any question inside the industry. But I suspect that people in the industry started feeling embarrassed about pretending that editors didn’t exist. (Someday, maybe Hollywood will stop pretending that stunt-people don’t exist.) Of course, there’s a lot more than editors. There is, as in everything, a web of people who allow things to get done. We must destroy the Romantic hero archetype. Sadly, we are nowhere near that.

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