Essay by Martha Quillen
Colorado Central – December 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine
Dear Neil Seitz, point taken: the averages should have been calculated by using the number of teachers, not schools. But I blame this entirely on Edward. Personally, I avoid averaging anything in a story with so many numbers — figuring that there’s already room for ample errors without me adding my calculations — but Ed loves numbers.
Ordinarily, I do the copy editing, but in this case I spent several hours with print-outs and on the internet checking each and every number that we used that was on the report cards. Then I turned everything over to Ed and asked him to make sure that the way the numbers were used and any calculations made from them were logical…. Darn, I guess this was my fault. I know full well Ed tends to edit optimistically when he’s busy selling ads and designing pages. At that point, he figures all is well, or at least it should be — because he doesn’t have time for it not to be.
The thing is: I knew those averages needed checked. Unfortunately, however, I tend to remember just enough math to know there’s a problem with averaging percentages, but not enough to remember what to do about it. Generally, I handle such situations by dropping the reporter’s calculations and making the same case with the official numbers. Doing that would have been easy in this case because Annie’s main conclusion was that the numbers didn’t really make a case for how to vote; and that was true. Salida wasn’t the richest or the poorest school, it’s teachers weren’t the highest paid or the lowest.
But Annie was on a school trip and couldn’t be consulted when I was editing, and I didn’t really want to make any substantial changes without her input. Her story required interviews, meetings, library research, an understanding of mill levies and tax records, and Annie had put in an inordinate amount of work on it. I didn’t want to risk editing out her unique style and voice.
Usually, however, when in doubt, I tend to edit reporters’ computations out. That hardly seems sporting, though — especially if there’s some simple rules or a book someone could recommend on how to identify (and avoid) common mathematical errors. That’s why I’m writing this letter, I thought someone might know of something.
It dawns on me that Ed and I have lots of grammar books, dictionaries, and history texts to check dates and details — as do most of the local writers and editors we know. Though we still make mistakes, it helps in reducing them (or at least we think it does). Yet neither of us knows of any books that identify frequently made numerical mistakes and how to avoid them.
Sometimes when someone asks me a grammar question, I realize that they don’t know that there are many easy-to-use grammar books available which work pretty much like dictionaries — you just look up the word you have a question about — or the punctuation mark or concept — and generally you can find an answer to your question. So are there any books like that about mathematical usage? I’ve looked before, and never found anything, but I thought maybe a reader would know of something.
AND VOILA…. While I’m at it, in response to Conway’s letter, I’d like to take the entire blame for “wallah.” I knew it was wrong, I just couldn’t think of what was right, and in this case the dictionary was no help at all — “wallah” being spelled nothing like “voila.” Although “wallah” didn’t seem right, the correct spelling just wouldn’t come to me. Then, because I thought of it as one of those “magician’s” words, I tried changing it to “shebang,” and “abracadabra,” but they sounded downright flippant. So I tried looking for “magic” words in the Thesaurus thinking maybe I’d find the true spelling for “wallah.” But I didn’t. Finally, I decided I’d ask Ed about it the next day, then I forgot about it until your letter came. How familiar and absolutely obvious “voila” seems — now.
Thank you both for your letters.
Actually, I’d like to thank everyone who has taken the time to write to Colorado Central this year — whether your correspondence has been for publication or not. Your input is much appreciated.