Literature & Scholarship

Notes on West’s Textual Criticism

Random thoughts from M.L. West’s Textual Criticism and Editorial Technique. In one section West surveys “Various causes of textual discrepancy.” Notably, although many a “textual discrepancy” is an error, West is careful to allow for other types of variations and different causes. Under the category “semi-conscious and unconscious changes” West includes assimilation:

West naturally considers mistakes in his students’ exams as forms of textual errors.

There are several ways in which an individual word may be miswritten without having been misread. By far the commonest way is partial assimilation to some other word nearby. Endings are particularly liable to be assimilated, bringing confusion to the syntax. [West offers a number of Greek examples.] … the error is entirely mental, not visual; and in a batch of examination scripts which I had to mark in 1967 I noted no less than 77 slips of the pen of the assimilative type, e.g., ‘a critique of the Roman of his time and of human nature in general’ (‘Rome’ assimilated to the coming ‘human’); ‘bread, not oxen was the only food known to Dicaeopolis which was put into an oxen’ (for ‘an oven’).

Other standard types of psychological error are haplography, dittography, and simple omission. Haplography means writing once what ought to be written twice, e.g., defended instead of defendendum; dittography is the opposite, reduplication of a syllable, word, or longer unit. My examination scripts produced fourteen examples of dittography (‘renonown’ for ‘renown’, etc., but more often doubling of a short world like ‘be’ or ‘of’), only three of haplography.

Three thoughts came to mind when I read these paragraphs:

  1. In what must be related to Maslow’s hammer comment,[1] West here seems obligated to consider student errors within a taxonomy of manuscript variations. Must be really odd to see all written errors as some nameable form of “textual discrepancy.”
  2. What professor has the time and energy to tally and classify student errors? Seriously? And to what end?
  3. Who today would casually refer to student mistakes in a scholarly work on textual criticism? So quaint.

A few pages further on, still in the textual discrepancy section, West says:

Finally, it must be noted that one corruption often leads to another, some efford[sic.] of interpretation on the part of the scribe being usually involved. …

I confess, this sentence caused me, the reader, some effort. I wondered, “Is ‘efford’ a word? What does it mean?” So I pulled down the “Dvandva-Follis” volume of my OED and checked. No. There on pages 86 and 87 it clearly shows no word between “efforce” and “effore.”[2] I find it vaguely amusing to find a textual error (let‘s call it what it is) in a book discussing textual errors.

  1. Abraham Maslow of pyramid fame reportedly wrote on page 15 in his Psychology of Science: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as is it were a nail.” I have not confirmed that Maslow did, in fact, write that sentence. Maybe one day I’ll put in the effort to check, but today is not that day.  ↩

  2. Yes, I know the online OED would have required less effort, but it still would have required effort. Moreover, searching the online version is less fun. I doubt, for example, if I had searched the online OED that I would have noticed “effraction: breaking open (a house); burglary.” Sure, I’ll probably never use effraction, but I’m happy to know it exists.  ↩