“The Most Expensive Hyphen in History”

“The Most Expensive Hyphen in History.”

That was the title I ran across in a Google search as I was editing and designing a recent issue of The Christian Appeal, the monthly devotional magazine my brother and I edit.

The “hyphen” in question was actually an “overbar” (“hyphen” to most of  us) that a programmer failed to properly copy into “coded computer instructions” in the “data editing program” that allowed faulty guidance instructions to be sent to . . . guess what? A space probe! None other than NASA’s Mariner 1.

Launched in 1962, Mariner 1 was supposed to head for Venus for America’s first planetary “fly by.” Unfortunately for the 18.2 million dollar (1962 dollars!) spacecraft, the missing hyphen caused such serious guidance problems that the spacecraft had to be destroyed just 294.5 seconds into the flight. (Mariner 2 would later do the job right.)

The whole hyphen incident seems to have taken on something of “urban legend” status, clouding fact and fiction. But Mariner 1 did indeed become expensive toast, and, though the reality may well be more complicated, a single hyphen has often received the blame.

So, you see, the moral of the story is clearly that, while computer programmers are a dime a gigabyte, what the world really needs are more conscientious English majors with a flare for proofreeding. (Make that “a flair for proofreading,” lest this column go off-course and crash into innocent bystanders.)

I hate proofreading, but what I hate worse is wading through slop published by careless proofreaders. Our little magazine gets proofread at least four times before it hits print. I dare anyone to find a cleaner publication (in any sense). But it still drives me crazy when I’m reading through an issue later and am hit in the face by an extra space that managed to creep in and hitch a ride to publication between two words that needed only one space.

Grammar is another issue, and one that recently almost caused a rift in the family. (You need to understand that my family plays Scrabble as blood sport.) My younger brother Jim wrote the sentence. Editor Me passed it on. Older brother Editor Gene flagged it to be fixed. Here’s the original: “I’ve become acutely aware of the chaos so many ‘loose ends’ tends to create.” The question: “tends” or “tend”? It’s a subject-verb agreement issue. Brother Jim thinks “chaos” is doing the tending. Brother Gene thinks the “loose ends” tend. I just tend to be confused, but I bowed to seniority and went with “tend.” I just hope the issue doesn’t go off course and blow up if that’s wrong.

Mistakes do creep in, don’t they? In print. And, heaven knows, in life. Thank God that he didn’t forget to cross the most important T. We call it the Cross. The gift of God’s Son. Truly amazing GRACE. And, yes, that’s supposed to be all caps. (But Gene says italics would’ve been better.)



Copyright 2012 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.


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