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Errors in Science Fiction: “To Boldly Go” and Other Errors’ Effects on the View of Writers

Kaitlyn Meyers

6 March 2019
Introduction

As editors and readers, each error makes a bold statement that waves a red flag for all to

see. Errors are readily corrected by teachers in writing classes, “but if one goal is to prepare

students to write effectively once they leave college, we [as teachers] should consider

nonacademics’ responses to error” (Beason 2001, 34). Nonacademics—to writers—includes

anyone who is not in the fields of writing, journalism, or editing. These nonacademics would,

therefore, be readers from any other field—even from the STEM fields—because they do not

have the same kind of training as writers. But errors, as tedious as they are to spot and correct,

are vital signs of how a writer is viewed in the eyes of the nonacademics.

Business workers are discussed more in Larry Beason’s article (2001); however, in an

attempt to be applicable in a different field, I am curious to see how errors can affect the view of

a science fiction writer in the eyes of a nonacademic. The classic example from Star Trek has

been under vicious scrutiny: “to boldly go.” But does this example, and others, change how a

viewer or reader of science fiction sees the author? Carol Saller states that the “ultimate boss is

the reader” (2016, 5), and therefore all errors need to be expelled from the document. But which

errors are seen as actual errors, and which are seen as an author’s creative liberty? “To boldly

go” has been one of those examples of an error where many people do not see (or sense) the split

infinitive, simply because they are a nonacademic. So here blossom the research questions: What

are the types of errors that go unnoticed by the reading population? If these errors are detected or

undetected, how do errors affect the credibility of the writer(s)?

Methods

Giving a nod to Beason’s research, I also did a questionnaire, but instead of simply giving

out statements, I gave a short extract from a science fiction story and then had the participants
rank the errors from “extreme error” to “it’s not an error at all,” with a middle option for “it’s an

okay error” (for instances similar to “to boldly go,” when the nonacademics may sense the error,

but may not know why). There was an initial question to see how credible the author seemed,

with options of “high,” “okay,” and “low.”

I asked ten nonacademics that are friends and family of mine outside of my field. Most of

the participants were college aged, with a few were over forty years old, but each participant

have had some college education. The system by which the errors were determined was through

The Chicago Manual of Style, a standard for most American book publications, regardless of

genre (Einsohn 2011, 58).

Results

As aforementioned, I recruited ten people to take the survey. The difficulty of finding

more than ten kept me from recruiting more people; most people I know are writing academics.

Also, I was able to get an even number, so all the data is cohesive. I had decided to introduce

nine errors into the excerpt and some of the results were shocking, as will be discussed later in

this paper. However, the results were typically split over how the ten participants saw the error or

did not see the error; many of them said that the error was actually not an error in their eyes—

despite me telling them the error in the text.

Because I had chosen nine errors to introduce to a single extract,

I was expecting that everyone would say that the fictional author would

have low credibility; however, it was split evenly between “okay” and

“low.” No one had selected that the credibility of the author was high, but,

as one participant put it, it was because the author was not “respectable.”
The errors I introduced are as follows: (1) a semicolon where there should not be one, (2)

lack of capitalization at the beginning of a sentence, (3) an unclear antecedent, (4) the wrong

conjugation for tense, (5) the wrong subject-verb agreement for they, (6) a repetitive object (you

and for you), (7) passive voice, (8) a split infinitive, and (9) wrong word order. All of the specific

sentences I used as well as the excerpt can be seen in the Appendix.

Discussion

There were quite a few results that were split interestingly. For instance, there was

another 50/50 answer: the error of the split infinitive. “To romantically date” appears to be just

as conflicting as the famous “to boldly go.” It can be concluded that this is still a major issue in

the writing academia and in the nonacademic. I will, most likely, continue to avoid splitting

infinitives because there is such a divide over the correctness or incorrectness of it. One

drawback of having nonacademics do this survey is that two of the participants expressed not

knowing what a split infinitive was; this may have affected the results because they simply did

not know it was a potential error.

The only error that all ten participants said was a massive error was subject-verb

agreement (“they makes”); it was a blind unanimous decision that subject-verb agreement is

important to get right. I will definitely be taking that into all of my future editing projects.

Another interesting find was how people reacted to the introduction of a semicolon error

where there should not be one. The sentence “She worked at a police precinct; where the only

human employees were the Chief and her, the Chief’s secretary” came across as an “okay error”

to eight of the ten participants. The remaining two had said that it was a “massive error.” (I made

an error here, saying “The semicolons is a massive error” instead of the singular of “semicolon,”

which is why there are four options listed in the Appendix of data.) This is interesting, because
the error included a type of punctuation that most people do not know the rules of very well. I am

going to work under the assumption, then, that I have to be very careful in the future with the

usage of semicolons.

A final data point that I would like to discuss is the wrong word order statement: “Liking

commitment she did not.” One person decided that it was “not offensive to me (I don’t consider

it an error)” while the other nine participants said that the statement was a “massive error.” It was

fairly confusing to see that lone person deciding that Yoda-speak in Star Wars was appropriate

for this context, but then I realized that, when taken out of context, it may not be seen like an

error because of the Yoda’s fame. His impact on English seems to have made at least one person

think that it was acceptable to speak that way. However, in the future, I will continue to avoid

wrong word order and Yoda-speak.

Conclusion

The red flag of an error seems only to be seen by certain nonacademics. Nonacademics,

as strangers to the rules of The Chicago Manual of Style, and even some rules of grammar,

appeared to go by their gut feeling of what was right and what was wrong in the excerpt given to

them. Through this study on the views toward the author of science fiction, the perception of the

author seems to not depend on how many errors there are or even the quality of the story.

Instead, the credibility of the author seems to depend on artistic liberty. One surveyor said with

profoundness regarding the split infinitive: “To say that every infinitive cannot be split is some

form of restriction. It seems almost wrong.”

By now having this insight, I can see that artistic liberty triumphs over logic sometimes.

The value of The Chicago Manual of Style is not destroyed by artistic liberty, but rather it is
enhanced, because it allows for clarity. Instead, those red flags become neutral and beautiful to

the eye.
Reference List

Beason, Larry. 2001. "Ethos and Error: How Business People React to Errors." College

Composition and Communication 53, no. 1 (September): 33–64.

Einsohn, Amy. 2011. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate

Communications. University of California Press.

Saller, Carol. 2009. The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago. Chicago: The

University of Chicago Press.


Appendix

Extract and Instructions

This survey is to see how errors in writing can change a reader's view towards the author. There
is an excerpt from a science-fiction story with errors introduced. Each question will ask how you
how much you like or dislike an error.

….

There was the sound of metal whirring as the coffee-robot made Violet’s hot drink. There was
the same whirring behind her as the cleaning-robot cleaned the carpeted floor. The whirring
sound was everywhere, actually, now that she thought of it, as she waited.

She worked at a police precinct (1) ; where the only human employees were the Chief and her,
the Chief’s secretary. That was a life she always wanted. (2) to be Chief was her dream, but at
her rate, nothing was going her way.

The ding of the coffee-robot indicated that her coffee was done. She grabbed (3) it and, turning,
nearly ran right into a DR30.9 model, a detective-robot. She called it "Aqua" because of its eye
color. Those same eyes were trained on her coffee.

“You like coffee.” Aqua said, as if reporting it. “Noted.”

“Thank you, DR30.9,” she replied, slightly irritated, but (4) keeping it under her polite exterior.
The humans refer to the robots by their model number, not by any name (5) they makes up for
the various ones.

“I was hoping to ask you to lunch,” said Aqua in its electronic voice.

Robots can’t have hopes, she thought, still irritated.

Aqua continued: “I was going to buy (6) you coffee for you.”

The moment was continually ruined by her demeanor. She had the money. She didn’t need (7)
the coffee paid for by a robot.

“No thanks, DR30.9” she said, again trying to sound polite. “I’m a tad busy. And it’s fine,
really.”

“I want (8) to romantically date you, Violet.”

Aqua’s statement shocked her. She nearly dropped her hot coffee everywhere.

What? she thought, an internal conflict building. Dating would mean commitment. (9) Liking
commitment she did not.
“Um,” Violet said, “I can’t. Uh, I’m married!”

“Not according to the database,” rebuked the robot, as if its electronic voice had a matter-of-fact
tone.

….

Questions and Overall Responses

After your initial reading, how credible is this author?


1. This author’s credibility is high
2. This author’s credibility is okay.
3. This author’s credibility is low.

“She worked at a police precinct (1) ; where the only human employees were the Chief and her,
the Chief’s secretary.”
1. The semicolon is a massive error.
2. It’s an okay error; it’s not too terrible.
3. It’s not offensive to me (I don't consider it an error.)
“(2) to be Chief was her dream, but at her rate, nothing was going her way.”
1. The lack of capitalization is a massive error.
2. It’s an okay error; it’s not too terrible.
3. It’s not offensive to me (I don't consider it an error.)

“She grabbed (3) it and, turning, nearly ran right into a DR30.9 model, a detective-robot.”
1. The unclear antecedent (the noun that the pronoun refers to) is a massive error.
2. It’s an okay error; it’s not too terrible.
3. It’s not offensive to me (I don't consider it an error.)
“‘Thank you, DR30.9,’ she replied, slightly irritated, but (4) keeping it under her polite exterior.”
1. The wrong conjunction is a massive error.
2. It’s an okay error; it’s not too terrible.
3. It’s not offensive to me (I don't consider it an error.)

“The humans refer to the robots by their model number, not by any name (5) they makes up for
the various ones.”
1. The subject-verb agreement is a massive error.
2. It’s an okay error; it’s not too terrible.
3. It’s not offensive to me (I don't consider it an error.)
“Aqua continued: ‘I was going to buy (6) you coffee for you.’”
1. The repetition of “you” is a massive error.
2. It’s an okay error; it’s not too terrible.
3. It’s not offensive to me (I don't consider it an error.)

“She didn’t need (7) the coffee paid for by a robot”


1. The passive voice is a massive error.
2. It’s an okay error; it’s not too terrible.
3. It’s not offensive to me (I don't consider it an error.)
“‘I want (8) to romantically date you, Violet.’”
1. The split infinitive is a massive error.
2. It’s an okay error; it’s not too terrible.
3. It’s not offensive to me (I don't consider it an error.)

“(9) Liking commitment she did not.”


1. The word order is a massive error.
2. It’s an okay error; it’s not too terrible.
3. It’s not offensive to me (I don't consider it an error.)