How to properly use [sic]

Hint: Not often

Twitter, Facebook, email, and the like are great reporting tools, allowing reporters access to more sources, wider reporting, and more information.

But a problem arises when the written communications don’t reach the publication’s standards of style, spelling, or capitalization, or if they are ungrammatical or unclear. What’s a journalist to do? Repeat the text verbatim, and have a reader believe the error is that of the journalist, not the source? Correct the “errors,” and risk being called out for altering reality?

Enter [sic].

From the Latin for “so” or “thus,” [sic] indicates that the text was so written originally. [Sic] (sometimes rendered in italics, with or without the brackets), allows a publication to tell readers that this is what the original writer wrote; we’re merely repeating it, so don’t blame us. Think of it as the CYA of the publishing world. (That phrase is not from the Latin.)

Garner’s Modern American Usage says that use of [sic] “has skyrocketed since the mid-20th century.”

Using [sic], though, can come off as snarky, giving a sense of “we know better,” at the expense of the original author. If President Obama sent an email discussing a serious topic, and misspelled “trial” as “trail,” putting [sic] in points out his mistake and distracts from the original message.

Sometimes you do want to do that, to make a point. To do it routinely, though, as Garner’s says, “may frequently reveal more about the quoter than about the writer being quoted.”

Without wanting to bite the hand that feeds, we present this example, from a recent CJR article about how the media treat soldiers labeled as heroes or traitors, in this case Bowe Bergdahl:

Bergdahl sounds clear and cogent in the email, but elsewhere his writing conveys emotional and psychological unrest. “I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking blackness was all I had in front of me, that it would be blackness to the very last instent[sic],” he wrote in a journal, according to the Post. “I know this is not right. I know that there is light in this darkness, and that I can actuly[sic] reach it if I keep walking, keep moving to it.”

The need to point out that the spelling is Bergdahl’s and not the author’s seems unnecessary here, since the excerpt mentions “emotional and psychological unrest,” and even more so since the original article, in The Washington Post, did not insert [sic]. The effect is to subtly enhance that something is “wrong” with Bergdahl. The effect is magnified if the person is not a native speaker.

Many times, it’s easier to paraphrase written communication and avoid the quandary. In most cases, if the itch to point out such errors must be scratched, there are many ways to do so. Simply introducing the passage with a phrase like “In his post, repeated verbatim …” can alert a reader that any “errors” are those of the originator. If more need be said, say something like, “In a tweet whose spelling reflects her fourth-grade education, she said …” Those are less value judgments and more useful to allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

And if a historical document is being quoted, to constantly tell a reader “this is not my spelling” would be too much [sic]ness. Writer, heal thyself.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.