If you’ve read enough, you’ve probably come across sic. And you probably also have a good idea of how it’s used. If you’re not familiar with it, or you’ve seen it used but aren’t sure what it means, no worries. It’s not something that’s taught much in schools, and it’s not something most of us ever need to use in our lives. It might be mentioned in a style guide at university, especially on a course with a strong focus on writing, such as journalism. But generally, it’s not talked about much. Which is a bit of a pity, as it can be quite a powerful weapon.
You’ll usually find sic in a quotation, and it means thus was it written (from the Latin sic erat scriptum). We use it when we want to make it clear that we’re repeating exactly what was originally said or written. Normally it can be assumed that this is what we’re doing anyway in a quotation, and sic is therefore redundant. But sometimes there might be something unusual about a spelling, or some other use of language. It might look like a typo on our part, so we use sic to make it clear that yes, this is what the person actually said, or this is how they wrote it. For example:
“In this classic episode of The Simpsons, Bart, Lisa, and Milhouse go to Kamp Krusty (sic) for the summer.”
“One day, the main character walks behind his house and sees a sign with ‘Pet Sematary’ (sic) written on it.”
In these examples, we’re dealing with unusual spelling. In the first example, we might be able to do without sic. If you’re writing to readers in the English-speaking world, there’s a good chance that they’re familiar with The Simpsons, and by extension Krusty the Klown’s (sic) spelling, and penchant for Komedy K’s (sic). You can assume the reader knows that you know how to spell both camp and crusty (the character would be a lot creepier if he were called Crusty the Clown, wouldn’t he? Those Komedy K’s are really something).
In the second example though, it’s more helpful. You might have recognised that it’s from an imaginary review or synopsis of the Stephen King novel Pet Sematary. If you’re familiar with the book or its film adaptation, you’ll know that the sign was written by children, explaining its wonky spelling. But that’s not clear from the extract above, and if you wanted to make it clear that this is an unusual spelling, you’d have to waste a lot of words explaining why. But sic tells the reader straight away that you know that’s not how the word is spelled (how is the word spelled, by the way? I’ve deliberately avoided writing it, as it’s one a lot of people spell wrong. Give it a shot: you’ll get the answer soon). Including sic saves a lot of confusion, as it tells the reader straight away that your spelling is ok, and that within the reality of the story, the sign is misspelled. And then the reader will probably figure out for themselves that it was written by children in the story.
In fact, you might even help your reader learn how to spell cemetery (did you think it has an a? Most people do!). When they see sic they might think either a): I know that’s the wrong spelling, but how exactly is it spelled?; or b): That’s not how you spell it!? And in both cases, they might look the word up and find the correct spelling. In fact, much as I enjoyed the book, I think it can be partly blamed for people’s inability to spell cemetery. If you see the title, but don’t actually read the book, you might think it’s the correct spelling. Surely they wouldn’t let a book by one of the world’s best-selling authors be published with a spelling mistake in the title!
OK, so sic can be useful, but how can it be a weapon? Simply in our choice to use it, really. Imagine you’re a journalist, and you’re reporting a statement made by a Mr. Smith about a Mr. Jones. This statement is simply: “He don’t like it.” You’ve got a couple of options. First, you can avoid the issue of how to deal with the error by paraphrasing:
Mr. Smith stated that Mr. Jones didn’t like it.
But a journalistic instinct tells you that paraphrasing can be tricky, because you might be accused of putting words in someone’s mouth. So you decide to use a direct quote, but also to tidy it up a bit:
“He doesn’t like it,” said Mr. Smith.
You’ve subtly corrected it without anyone knowing that Mr. Smith didn’t actually say doesn’t, but who’s to know, and do you think Mr. Smith will be upset about that? He might even be grateful that you’ve saved his blushes by not printing his error in public. But maybe that sense of integrity tells you it’s not right to change a quote, so you don’t (this is what I think I’d actually do in this case, by the way):
“He don’t like it,” said Mr. Smith.
Most people probably won’t even notice it, and it’s not like it’s even really a mistake, is it? It’s so common, it’s basically just an aspect of a dialect. But, let’s say you don’t like Mr. Jones. He was belligerent when you interviewed him, and you want to get some petty revenge. Then, you do this:
“He don’t (sic) like it,” said Mr. Smith.
It’s a simple, passive-aggressive way to say Look at this idiot, he made a mistake, and I’m smart enough to notice it! And you can always say that you’re just following the rules, by indicating that this is exactly what he said, much as it pains you to do so! This is when it becomes a weapon. Sure, you can use it make it clear that the error is not yours, particularly if it’s a bad one. That’s fair enough, and probably how it’s most often used. But at the same time, isn’t it also indicating that the person you’re quoting made a mistake? This is ok if it’s a big one, or a factual error, but when it’s something like He don’t like it that you could probably ignore, that’s when it becomes deadly.
An interesting relative of sic might be the use of unintelligible in the transcript of the recent Donald Trump interview with the Associated Press. If you’re unfamiliar with it, basically quite a few sections were marked as unintelligible. Now, they probably were unintelligible. Trump’s not the clearest of speakers, and I don’t think he plans his sentences out, as he rambles quite a lot. But what if those sections were quite unclear, and not every word could be made out, but the interviewer still had a good idea of what he meant? But, but, what if they wanted to make Trump look stupid and therefore (even unconsciously) didn’t make an effort to understand, and just marked these sections as unintelligible? I can’t say that’s what happened, and there is a good chance it was unintelligible, but even then, unintelligible is an interesting choice of word. Unclear, or indistinct would work quite well instead. But unintelligible, well, that’s just two syllables away from unintelligent, isn’t it? And again, this might not even be a conscious choice, but rather come from perceptions of Trump’s intelligence (however little I think of him, I actually don’t think he’s stupid… overall), and his poor public speaking.
I might be reading too much into it, but I can’t help wondering if this is like using sic writ large, and an opportunity to get in a dig at Drumpf (sic). Whether it is or not, be careful how you use sic (or unintelligible): you may make some powerful enemies.