To "Sic" or Not to "Sic," Ain't That the Question?

When writing these long early chapters, I used the word "sic" hundreds of times. "Sic" = "thus" = "this is the way they wrote it, folks, I'm only the messenger." But it does become a question, sometimes agonizing. In the last line, N.C. Hudson says he thinks the bridge is over a hundred miles wide. Of course, he doesn't mean that. Does he mean feet? Yards? To which direction is he referring? One could make an educated guess. But more importantly, I enjoy passing mistakes like this along to the reader. N.C. Hudson loved to travel. He loved the vastness of the open country. Perhaps his mind was in "vastness" mode rather than focused down onto small details. Maybe it was the feel of great size of the bridge that impressed him rather than an anatomically correct rendition of the dimensions.

When I transcribe, I use "[sic]" all the way through the material at every misspelling, every doubled word, every serious mistake in punctuation. I do that because I want to make an accurate typed (electronic) copy of the letter that can be more easily read than the handwriting and can be copied and edited for publication, but I don't want to lose any of the details of the written version. That's really not a problem, because the transcripts are for reference. I remember one of my cousins reading a transcribed letter and telling me, "There are too many 'sics' in it." For reading, this is true, so what does a writer do? I'm still working on that.

When I edited the journals my grandmother and her family wrote on a trip around the world in 1910 and 1911, I will never forget a change I made in favor of "political correctness," although I'm sure I had never heard that term at the time, I simply didn't want to be offensive toward a race of people. One of the journals described events as the family was preparing to boarding a ship to start the first ocean part of their voyage: "Exploring further, we ventured into Steerage, and there surprised two Chinamen still in bed, the Chinese crewmen not being allowed to go ashore in Seattle." I changed "Chinamen" to "Chinese men," and have regretted it since. It lacks the flavor of the time, and it withholds information about the words that were considered proper usage by my ancestors in those years. It doesn't sound authentic, and I didn't footnote it. The edited journals ended up as a book that I put together and my grandmother published, entitled All Eight Went. I do plan to put it online one of these days, as all of the printed copies are gone. That will be my chance to reverse that choice, anyway.

When a person transcribes letters without using "sic," nobody knows whether to attribute the mistake or variation to the letter-writer or transcriber, and that's why I would rather litter the page with "sics" at the outset and think about changing them later. A transcribed letter can be used as historical reference material, or it can become the basis for story. It's fascinating to me to be given the gift of these windows into the past. There was a time when "ain't" was used within the context of more proper grammar, although I don't know if it was used in fun or seriously. It may have been a fad, or maybe not, but I'd have to find those letters again and read them in the context of other years. (Well, hopefully I may have footnoted it!) Perhaps the grammarians were still in the process of deciding whether the word was proper or not. Another interesting side note is that the letters from the generation I'll be dealing with most sound positively modern next to the letters from the generation of their parents. How does this happen and why? Maybe we see it today, and maybe history will note the demarcation.

You can also tell a lot about the education level of a person from his or her letters. The person may be self-taught or well-schooled, and that in itself is of interest. Some of the writers with lower levels of formal education spelled certain words phonetically. It's interesting to "hear" them speak through their letters. They had a slight accent that I don't have. I learned that from their uncorrected writing. And there were conventions of the day that tell us more about the time than about the person.

Once you get to the stage of publication, some of the "sics" can be left out, as I know beyond a doubt that I have gone over it enough times that what you see is what was there. In other cases, maybe a writer wants to "clean up" the spellings and punctuation so the meaning can be understood. But it does change a reader's perception of how the individual might talk or how fast they might be trying to put words onto paper. All of these things I found to be of interest. This is why I felt so much life breathed into people whose lives had passed into history so long ago. The connection was real, personal, flawed, expressive. The trick is in figuring out how best to convey that to a reader without leaving the material in an awkward state.

So, these are some of the thoughts I have while embarking on this project. At first it's easy - keep it accurate. And then what?

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