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The more difficult reading is to be preferred. This principle of codicology, or the study of manuscripts (= MSS) and the transmission of texts, states that if you have two MSS (or families of MSS) offering different (but plausible) readings at a certain passage, you should prefer the one which is (or seems to be) harder to understand, as long as it does not involve bad grammar.

The idea is that a scribe may copy a text from a dirty, damaged, or sloppy exemplar and fill in a gap in sense with something plausible. The likelihood is that the copyist would fill in meaning with less understanding than the original author, and he is unlikely to invent highly difficult or ornate syntax just to fill in a blank (copyists tended to be modestly-educated drudges). If this happened at an early enough point in the transmission of an ancient text, you may end up with two whole families of MSS, one exhibiting the original reading of the archetype and the other propagating the bad reading down to its descendents. (Some errors get in so early that they appear in all MSS and are nearly impossible to identify unless they are ungrammatical or make no sense at all.)

Sometimes (though less frequently) a copyist cannot understand a word or phrase and replaces it with something sensible on the assumption that some earlier copyist screwed the reading up. This is an emendation, and scribal emendations are the bane of codicologists, because they go against the overwhelming majority of entropic errors, and against the principle under discussion here. Clever scribal emendations are often picked up by modern editors, however--it being a mistake to think that only moderns are smart enough to get to the root of these problems.

This principle must be applied carefully, therefore, with some knowledge of the scribe, if indeed anything is known. I once edited a 7th-century Byzantine astronomy text, and had to collate (systematically compare) a much later (13th century) copy made by an accomplished (and much smarter) scientist for his own use. Luckily, the text survives in several MSS, because my scientist's copy was not very useful for getting at the original readings: he was constantly emending the text, jumping over annoying repetitions, and generally adding voluminous notes in the margin. Even worse, my scientist was a go-getter, and had fetched other MSS of the text so as to compare readings for himself, thus contaminating his MSS with readings from other families!

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