The Grammarphobia Blog

When to sic ’em

Q: When does one sic the errors of another writer? I’ve had an exchange with an online writer that began with my scolding him for too few sics. He did sic some errors, but not others. His response was along the lines of “I sic ’em when the errors are major but not when they’re minor and the sics would make me look pedantic.” Do you have a rule? Does the NYT?

A: Sic is Latin for “so” or “thus,” and it’s used in quoted material – printed in italics and inside brackets – to indicate that the preceding word or phrase is being quoted as it appears in the original.

A good definition of sic is the one given in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.): “intentionally so written.”

The purpose of sic is not to call attention to a mistake. The purpose is to let the reader know that the material is being reproduced as it originally appeared.

This can be useful, for instance, when it helps to clarify a possibly confusing usage, or when a reader might otherwise think he’s seeing a misprint.

If the New York Times has a policy on sic, we don’t know what it is. There’s nothing about this in the paper’s style manual.

But often the use of sic can make the sic-er look nasty and pedantic, as if he has ferreted out an error and is saying “Gotcha!”

We generally don’t use sic on the blog, where we’re often quoting Old English and Middle English citations that are chock full of odd spellings and usages. Readers know these are being quoted “as is.”

You didn’t ask about the use of the verb “sic” in the sense of chase or attack (“sic ’em, Fang”), but we’ll answer anyway.

The first citation for this usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs (1845), a collection of fictional sketches by Johnson Jones Hooper: “Si-c-k, Pomp – sick, sick,      si-c-k him, Bull.” (We’ve edited the quotation based on texts available online.)

So is it “sic” or “sick” in this sense? The two US dictionaries we use the most – Merriam-Webster’s and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) – list the “sic” spelling first.

Where does this usage come from? The lexicographers at the OED describe it as a dialectal variation of the verb “seek.”

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