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Robert E. Murphy Headshot

Language Problems at the New York Times

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Since the death last September of William Safire, the presidential speechwriter and political columnist who wrote the regular "On Language" feature in The New York Times Magazine, no one whom I know of has taken on the mantle of America's leading linguistic watchdog. I am not at this time a candidate for that post, but to partially restore the loss, I am today beginning what I expect to be a series of occasional blogs commenting on the use of the English language -- mainly the written language, and mainly as it is being put down at present in these United States. I am qualified to do this because some decades ago I was designated the "Official Class Grammarian" by my ninth-grade English teacher.

It was ironic to me that Safire issued his observations, inquiries and admonitions from a seat at the Times because the Times itself, though generally very well written, is a rather carelessly edited newspaper that regularly allows some of the most common faults in contemporary usage to appear in its pages. In recent months I have jotted down a few of these, and I want to point them out as illustrations of the slippage in grammar and usage that I suspect is more symptomatic of our time than of any other period in memory.

I think that these days the most widely ignored principals of proper English are the rules of agreement. Thus:

"a spouse's finding out about a cheating partner by reading their personal text
messages would have a profound effect on how such cases are played out..."
(December 9th, page-three continuation of a page-one article)

Got it? This sample violates one of two fundamental agreement requirements: namely, the requirement that pronouns must agree in number with their antecedents. If, that is, a pronoun relates or refers back to a noun preceding it in a sentence, the pronoun must be singular if the noun is singular, or be plural if the noun is plural. (Such a pronoun is called a "relative" pronoun.) In this case, the noun "partner" is singular, but the pronoun that relates to it, "their," is plural. This is what the Times would call a "disconnect" -- about which, more later -- and, I tell you, it can not be accepted!

This particular misusage has become epidemic. I really believe that in American written language, including language scripted for radio and television, such errors are now more common than examples of accurate agreement. A main reason for this is feminism, which has been a very positive development in many ways, but not necessarily in its effect on language. Granted, one of the flaws of English as it has evolved is its lack of a gender-neutral personal pronoun -- that is, a pronoun referring to person rather than to a thing. And it has never been a satisfactory solution to authorize the masculine form to relate to an antecedent that is neither masculine or feminine: "One must know his own mind." But the problem can't be solved by violating the rule of number agreement, especially when accurate alternatives are available. Thus, the sample above can easily be rectified by making the antecedent plural: "spouses finding out about cheating partners by reading their personal text messages." A less satisfying but nonetheless acceptable solution would be to retain the singular antecedent and replace "their" with "his or her." Any editor who does not catch and repair such an error is sleeping at the switch.

I don't seem to have recorded a violation of the second principal rule of agreement, requiring verbs to agree in number with their subjects. But this too is more frequently abused now than ever before. This error most commonly occurs when the subject is a "collective" noun - a singular noun that represents more than one person or thing, such as "group." Although every group contains more than one member, it is nonetheless a singular noun. It is one thing; it is not "groups." So it is mated with a singular verb (generally in our perverse language identified by the appearance of "s" at its end, the opposite of the convention for nouns). So: "The group is (not are) considered left-leaning."

I don't find such violations to be as grating as the previous example, and there are, and long have been, exceptions to this rule. For example: "The troupe were tired out by such a demanding play." The plural verb would be acceptable here because it conveys the sense that each member of the cast was fatigued - or, at least, that several members were fatigued -- and indeed it might be said that that tiredness can only be felt by individuals. Yet a singular verb in that sentence would not be incorrect.

The following, however, from page one of the Times of last October 24th, is incorrect:

"several visitors strolling by, each of whom wore face masks and vests..."

This is a different sort of agreement problem. Strictly speaking, this sample is not ungrammatical, because it is theoretically possible for each of several persons to wear more than one mask and more than one vest. But as a practical matter it is nonsense to indicate that. The writer obviously means that the each of the visitors wore a face mask and a vest.

I, by the way, would hyphenate the term "face mask," or, better still, would abridge it to "mask," since it is extremely unlikely that such an article would be worn anywhere but on the face. As Professor Strunk exclaims in the "little book" on grammar and usage that E.B. White reshaped into the indispensable Elements of Style, "Omit needless words!"

Well, look at this! My time is up, and I haven't got past the Times's agreement problems to those "disconnects" and other matters. Soon. Meanwhile, I hope I haven't committed any errors here.