Sense and Nonsense: On Changing One Letter

When asked to write a col­umn in the Georgetown student newspaper, I requested the editor not to change a submitted word without my permis­sion. This concern results from long experience. Your finest word turns out, in print, to be “blah” because some editor knew better than you, the writer, what you should have said.

The editor assured me that no changes were made except (ominous) stylistic ones—instead of writing “one hundred,” they use “100,” itself not al­ways an innocent change. The writer may have a reason for spelling it out. When my essay appeared, two items were changed. I used a Latin phrase—the definition of beauty, “quod visum pla­cet.” I did not translate it. Addressed to students, I intended to arouse in them enough curiosity to look it up, part of the purpose of the essay. In the final version the Latin was there, but also a translation.

The second change was near the end. I talked about the striking geo­graphic position of Georgetown Uni­versity on the hillside above the Po­tomac River. The essay’s punch line, so to speak, used the old spelling attrib­uted to the Indians, Potomack. Again, I used old-fashioned spelling delib­erately to alert the reader. This place goes back to origins before even we Jesuits were about. Alas, in the final version, without my permission, it was “Potomac,” not “Potomack.” That one letter change defeated my purpose.

A second example appeared in this very magazine. In May, I sent a letter to the editor about the beauty of the new Georgetown Jesuit build­ing. Again, I had requested that noth­ing in the letter be changed. In my remarks, I mentioned several of my Jesuit colleagues. I listed their names as “Fathers.” When the article came out, they were not “Fathers,” but “Revs.” I gasped! Catholic priests do not familiarly call their religious col­leagues “Revs.,” though they may for­mally use that title on letters. I was so annoyed that I decided not to show this letter to anyone. The change undermined the spirit of what I was saying. The editor later told me that Crisis followed the Chicago Manual of Style; there, “Revs.” is used. Needless to say, Schall was not happy to find out that the Catholic clergy use the Chicago Manual of Style to decide what to call one another.


Yet it may come as a shock to my otherwise happy readers that Schall is not infallible. Writers are grateful to editors who spot silly misspellings or errors of grammar. On page one of my book Christianity and Life (1981), I had a “not” when I should have had a “now”—it ruined the point I was mak­ing! In proofreading, neither I nor the editors saw the error. I saw it, alas, only after it was printed.

To prove that old dogs do not learn new tricks, the Summer 2006 is­sue of Modern Age contained a Schall essay with the lofty title, “Political Philosophy, Mysticism, and Play.” It begins with a Chesterton citation that captures the essay’s theme. It is stat­ed as a command: Either “praise [the gods]; or leave them alone; but do not look for them unless you know they are there. Do not look for them unless you want them. It annoys them very much.” Having further elaborated this point that the search for God is not a frivolous enterprise, I concluded by re­peating this same clinching sentence, only to discover that it read: “Do look for the gods unless you want them. It annoys them very much.”

On examining the printed essay, the first thing I saw was this crucial sentence that had left out the “not” af­ter “do.” I had proofread the galleys, as I presume the editor had. On check­ing my computer, I saw that the origin of the error was Schall, who should have included the “not” but did not see it was missing. The meaning of an es­say or the world itself may depend on the accuracy of one letter, one word, one Word.

Fr. James V. Schall


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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