Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

When Typos are Set in Stone

Every writer knows the feeling: you've just released a carefully edited piece of prose into circulation, and when you take another look you cringe at the sight of a typo that you missed. With online writing, typos can very often be fixed without anyone even noticing. Printed errors usually require red-faced corrections. But don't feel too bad: imagine if your typos were etched in granite for all to see!

Just in time for the federal observation of George Washington's birthday (aka Presidents Day), the New York Post has breathlessly reported on a typo in a quote from Washington chiseled in granite on the front of the New York State Supreme Courthouse in lower Manhattan. The inscription above the columns reads: "The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government."

New York State Supreme Courthouse

These words have stood for more than eight decades without anyone noticing that the quote is just a wee bit off. If you go to the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress website, you can see a reproduction of the letter from which the quote was taken, written by Washington to Attorney General Edmund Randolph on September 28, 1789:

Impressed with a conviction that the due administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good Government, I have considered the first arrangement of the Judicial department as essential to the happiness of our Country, and to the stability of its political system; hence the selection of the fittest characters to expound the laws, and dispense justice, has been an invariable object of my anxious concern.

Washington's letter

Other than editing down a typically prolix 18th-century sentence (which wouldn't have fit on the front of the courthouse very well!), the designers inserted a minor change: instead of "the due administration of justice," it reads "the true adminstration of justice."

The Post, never one to underplay a story, announced that this long-standing typo is nothing less than "a stunning slap at the Father of our Country." I wouldn't go that far, but perhaps it does insult Washington's memory in a small yet important way. James Rees, executive director of the Washington estate in Mount Vernon, Virginia, is quoted as saying, "Washington was a real stickler for detail. He wasn't one to let small things slide, so it would make a little bit of difference to him that they got this one right."

Blame for the error has been assigned to Boston architect Guy Lowell, who won the 1913 competition to design the courthouse and died in 1927, the year the building opened. Though Lowell's flub is unforgivable, it is at least understandable: due and true are quite close in both sound and sense, and "the true administration of justice" sounds more idiomatic to modern ears. Moreover, it's a mistake that many others have made, including Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Charles Warren in his 1922 book, The Supreme Court in United States History.

Engraved typos continue to this day, though it usually takes less than 80 years for someone to spot them. One that made headlines last year appeared on the statue of beloved Chicago Cubs player Ernie Banks unveiled outside of Wrigley Field. Banks is fondly remembered for saying, "It's a beautiful day for a ballgame. Let's play two!" (In other words, we might as well have a double-header, if it means we can enjoy a day in "the friendly confines" of Wrigley.) The Banksian catchphrase "Let's play two" was supposed to be inscribed on the statue's granite pedestal, but the carvers of the statue managed to leave out the apostrophe in Let's. After some local uproar, the typo was corrected a few days later. Here are before and after photos.

Ernie Banks statue

It's not the prettiest correction, since it uses the straight tick known as a "typewriter apostrophe," but at least it didn't require starting from scratch. Making the change on the New York Supreme Courthouse facade will be significantly harder, since there's no straightforward way to change true to due. What's more, the building is protected by the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, so Washington may be squirming in his grave for a while longer!

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday February 18th 2009, 9:25 AM
Comment by: Eliza M.
Thanks, Ben.

My favorite contemporary municipal typo appears on sewer plates that read
"N.Y.C Sewers"
followed by
Wednesday February 18th 2009, 1:55 PM
Comment by: Elissa S. (New York, NY)
Great article Ben! This reminded me of how typos can cause some serious damage.

Wednesday February 18th 2009, 11:04 PM
Comment by: Jane C.
First, chiseling "true" instead of "due" is a misquote, not a typo. ("Lets play two" is a typo). And secondly, apologies to George Washington's fastidiousness aside, if the the misquote adheres to the spirit of the message, where's the serious damage?
Thursday February 19th 2009, 12:26 PM
Comment by: Elissa S. (New York, NY)
Well, perhaps I was just classifying it all under the general umbrella of a mistake. I definitely don't think there is any serious damage to that typo/misquote/mischisel, but if you insert a comma in the wrong place in a contract or perform some other simple typo, the damages can be quite serious.
Thursday February 19th 2009, 12:35 PM
Comment by: Jane C.
Agreed! And I just noticed I typed "the" twice in my comment. D'oh!
Saturday February 21st 2009, 12:10 PM
Comment by: Betsy (Scottsdale, AZ)
Perhaps you might consider me anachronistic, but "quote" is a verb. Shouldn't the correct word be "quotation?" I realize that the nature of language is "mutability," however, there are certain things that for me will never change. For example, "drapes" is a verb, not a noun. My friends tease me about these things, but as a writer, myself, I am a purist.
Saturday February 21st 2009, 8:29 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Betsy: Allow me to quote the American Heritage Dictionary usage note for quote...
People have been using the noun quote as a truncation of quotation for over 100 years, and its use in less formal contexts is widespread today. Language critics have objected to this usage, however, as unduly journalistic or breezy. As such, it is best avoided in more formal situations. The Usage Panel, at least, shows more tolerance for the word as the informality of the situation increases. Thus, only 38 percent of Panelists accept the example He began the chapter with a quote from the Bible, but the percentage rises to 53 when the source of the quotation is less serious: He lightened up his talk by throwing in quotes from Marx Brothers movies.

I do strive for a less formal tone in these columns, so I thought that quote was appropriate (as it has been for writers as distinguished as T.S. Eliot, according to the OED). But perhaps using the word in reference to George Washington is unduly breezy!
Tuesday February 24th 2009, 12:25 PM
Comment by: Betsy (Scottsdale, AZ)
"Unduly breezy" hits the spot, and as you've explained it, I am trying not to hang my head in shame. (Well, not really.) Too bad old George didn't have more unduly breezy qualities. Thanks for responding.
Monday April 13th 2009, 6:38 PM
Comment by: A. Z.
Well, I've done that before.

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