I have the following problem:

I want to write an indirect citation of a passage in a specific book. The problem is that there is a literal error. Normally this would not be much of a problem (if I would quote it directly I could also write [sic!] to tag it as an error).

But the thing is that the literal error changes the whole meaning of the sentence.

To provide an example of what I mean (obtained from [1, p. 497]):

Nonpolynomial approaches, like dispatching, may not work well.

The thing is that dispatching is a polynomial and not a nonpolynomial approach. Two pages before it is even described as a polynomial approach (obtained from [1, p. 495]):

For comparison, we now consider problems that do not grow exponentially. These are called polynomial problems because [...]. As a specific example, consider the job dispatching problem [...].

What would be the proper way to handle this?


Because some made the valid supposition, that this is just a bad wording: As it was ascertained in the comments below this question, it is indeed a literal error. The error was not documented in the Errata of the 2nd edition (can be found here). But in the subsequent edition (the 3rd edition) on page 525 the sentence was changed to:

Polynomial approaches, like dispatching, may not work well.

So the example above is indeed a literal error.

[1] Wallace J. Hopp and Mark L. Spearman. Factory physics; foundations of manufacturing management. 2. ed. McGraw-Hill international editions: Management & organization series. Boston, Mass. [et al.]: Irwin McGraw-Hill, 2001. ISBN: 0-256-24795-1.

  • 13
    In your particular case: get hold of a copy of the latest edition of the book and see if they have corrected the mistake! books.google.co.uk/books/about/… Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 11:40
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    "Nonpolynomial approaches [...] may not work well."
    – TonyK
    Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 12:56
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    There seems to be a more fundamental piece of carelessness in the writing here. p.495 refers to "job dispatching" as "a problem". But p497 refers to "dispatching " as "an approach (to solving the problem)". This isn't my field of expertise, but common sense says using the same term for both "the problem" and "a solution method" doesn't make sense - especially if there are other solution methods for the same problem.
    – alephzero
    Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 14:25
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    Why do you want to cite a wrong text in the first place? Is there no alternative source which gets the matter right?
    – rumtscho
    Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 14:38
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    I believe that @user2390246's point was that, if you search the text of the third edition on Google Books, you will find that this has been corrected: books.google.co.uk/… Of course, this doesn't affect the general validity of your question; it merely resolves the immediate problem in your example.
    – recognizer
    Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 18:18

5 Answers 5


If the purpose of quoting the text is to discuss the error, then quote the error. However, in this case, it seems that your purpose is to discuss the real situation. Quoting the error just makes things confusing. Instead, I suggest something like:

Wallace et al. [1, p.497] say that polynomial approaches, such as dispatching, "do not work well."1

1 [1, p.497] erroneously described dispatching as nonpolynomial; compare [1,p.495].

The footnote explains that the literal quote from the source is incorrect but attempts to downplay this. The point of the footnote is only to stop the reader being confused if they look up the quote, not to criticize the authors for the mistake. You might be able to phrase the footnote better than I have, to make this point more effectively.

But be sure that it really is an error. The phrasing "Nonpolynomial approaches, like dispatching, may not work well" is ambiguous and could mean any of the following things:

  • "Nonpolynomial approaches, such as dispatching, may not work well." (That is, nonpolynomial approaches may not work well; dispatching is an example of a nonpolynomial approach. This is the interpretation that you've used.)

  • "Nonpolynomial approaches that resemble dispatching may not work well" (That is, among the nonpolynomial approaches, those that resemble dispatching may not work well; other nonpoly approaches might be fine.)

  • "Nonpolynomial approaches, which resemble dispatching, may not work well." (That is, nonpoly approaches resemble dispatching; nonpoly approaches may not work well.)

  • "Like dispatching, nonpolynomial approaches may not work well." (That is, dispatching may not work well. Nonpoly approaches have the following commonality with dispatching: they also may not work well."

Also, as dan1111 points out in his answer, you need to be sure that your correction (changing "nonpolynomial" to "polynomial") fixes the error.

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    That's four things :) Some of them are not strictly compatible with the comma before "like", though the distinction is subtle enough that it's possible the original text did not apply it correctly. Given the ambiguity and/or mistake in the cited source, might it be simpler to find another source that makes this particular point and cite it instead? Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 10:13
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    @user2390246 four? Doh! I agree that some of the interpretations aren't compatible with the commas but I'm not sure I want to trust the commas. If you believe the commas, the fourth interpretation is the literal meaning. But, yes, finding a source that you can cite without all this messing about would be even better! Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 10:17
  • Thank you for your advice. There is a valid reason why I want to quote this sentence. First it is stated that some sort of formal problems "are hard (in the NP-hard sense)", then two conclusions are made. One of them is the described sentence. If would decide not to mention the sentence then this whole quotation would not be textual complete (at least in my understanding). I will think more about how to do it, but I like your answer the most. Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 12:17
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    The fourth possible meaning in your list was what first occurred to me while reading the question. I think this possible meaning is enough to absolve the author of the error that the OP alleges, but (depending on the commas) it may be enough to convict him of serious ambiguity. Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 14:50
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    @AndreasBlass As was pointed out in the comments on the question, the author has since corrected that statement, which means it was indeed in error. Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 18:29

Avoid referencing this sentence altogether. It is just too confusing. Whether you quote it directly or not, someone who looks at the source will not find support for what you say, but will have to read and try to figure out what it is supposed to mean. This means that the reference is not serving its purpose of providing support for your statement.

  • If the source has other text clearly making this claim, reference the other text. This is the content that actually supports the claim you want to make.
  • If not, look for another source entirely. I would not base anything on a single sentence that appears to have an error like this. Because: how can you or the readers be sure of the intended meaning?

    • As David Richerby suggests, perhaps it was a poorly worded sentence, and another meaning was intended grammatically.
    • If there is an outright error, how do you know which word is wrong? You assume "polynomial approaches, like dispatching" was intended, but couldn't the intended meaning equally be "nonpolynomial approaches like X"? Where X is a nonpolynomial approach?
    • Even if you are sure, your readers might not be convinced. Questions about whether what you say is supported undermine the strength of your work.

Note: if the error has been corrected, as it turned out to be in this case, then it's clearly ok to reference the corrected version.

  • You've got a point there. In my particular case I can - like user2390246 stated - look it up in the 3rd edition. There are also documents who record errors in scientific publications, but I can't recall how those are named (maybe those are also only created for papers and not for books). If it's listed in such a document as an error then I can reference to it in a way David Richerby mentioned. Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 12:59
  • @MichaelLanghammer, I agree.
    – user24098
    Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 13:02
  • OK, such a document is called "Erratum". Unfortunately the conjectured error is not mention in the erratum of the 2nd edition. Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 14:17
  • Like I wrote in the comments above: It is corrected in the 3rd edition. So it is indeed a literal error (which is for some reason not documented in the Errata of the 2nd edition). Thanks to you too. Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 12:37

You should consider the possibility that you are misunderstanding the text.

It's possible that the author doesn't mean "Nonpolynomial approaches, of which dispatching is an example, ..." but rather he means "Nonpolynomial approaches, just as in the case of some polynomial approaches, ..."

In other words, his "like dispatching" doesn't mean that dispatching is an example of a nonpolynomial approach, but rather that it too suffers from the same problems as nonpolynomial approaches.

Simpler example: "Boys, like redheaded girls, have faces". This doesn't mean that redheaded girls are examples of boys. It means that boys, along with redheaded girls, share this property (having faces).

Just saying.

The author could clarify which is meant by using either "just as" or "such as" instead of "like".

  • Sorry, I didn't notice your answer before I posted mine. We are basically in agreement. In fact, your example is far more natural-sounding. I'm giving you the +1.
    – Deepak
    Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 2:51

If you want to quote the sentence, use [sic] (without any exclamation mark, there's no need for that), and then explain what's wrong, e.g.,

Wallace et al. [1] state that [sic]:

Nonpolynomial approaches, like dispatching, may not work well.

We should note, however, that [...]

(I'm not sure I've clearly understood the question, though)

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    Or it might be even better to include the [sic] right after the word in question, i.e. "Nonpolynomial [sic] approaches, like dispatching, may not work well.". I've also seen footnotes being used to clarify quotes. Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 9:38
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    Agreed that you definitely need to leave out the exclamation mark. Including it looks far too much like, "Nonpolynomial [duuuuuuuuuuh!] approaches, ..." Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 10:19

I am not at all sure if this should be considered an error by the author. It may represent an error in understanding by the reader.

An earlier mention was made of "dispatching" as a polynomial approach:

... polynomial problems because [...]. As a specific example, consider the job dispatching problem [...].

Shortly thereafter (just two pages later), the author references dispatching in this seemingly contradictory fashion:

Nonpolynomial approaches, like dispatching...

The key here is to recognise that the sentence construction:

The A and C strategies, like strategy B, are unlikely to work well.

can very reasonably be taken to mean that none of the strategies (A, B, or C) are likely to work well.

It does not imply that strategy B is a member of the group of strategies A and C.

Note that that little comma before the word "like" is highly important. If it had been omitted, the sentence can definitely be considered erroneous and misleading:

The A and C strategies like strategy B, are unlikely to work well.

The strong implication here is that strategy B is part of the A and C group of strategies.

Given that the line you quoted does have that critical comma, I don't think it's reasonable to conclude that it's in error.

  • Great minds think alike. +1 for you.
    – MPW
    Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 10:48
  • This! Commas are important. Commented Jun 11, 2016 at 13:33

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