Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Dr. Maddow, stick to politics

Over at Wishydig, Michael Coavarrubias catches Rachel Maddow in a false correction that expands the erroneous understanding of the split infinitive. She said of Sen. Joe Lieberman, “[H]e is biting the hand that inexplicably feeds him. Pardon the split infinitive.”

It is not a split infinitive, and it is not even wrong. (Dr. Maddow’s D.Phil. is in political science, not linguistics.)

Dr. Maddow is not alone.*

Over at Language Log, Geoffrey K. Pullum has discovered that Justice Anthony Kennedy “doesn’t know his passive voice from a hole in the ground.”

Professor Pullum has also discovered that the Collins Good Writing Guide, published by HarperCollins, is rife with ludicrous errors about grammar. He quotes the author’s explanation of the grammatical defect in the sentence Ask Tony and I for any further information you need: “To correct this you need to recognise that Ask is the subject and the phrase Tony and I is the direct object, because Tony and I are receiving the action as the result of the verb ask.” Yes, ask is both subject and verb. The author’s explanation of the phrase My word! is that My is the subject and word the predicate.

I think I am beginning to understand the difference between the teaching of English and the teaching of mathematics. Both are done wretchedly, but the outcome varies. Innumerate people are obscurely casual — point out an error in basic computation to a journalist, and you are likely to hear the explanation “Oh, I was never any good at math.” But people who have less grasp of grammar than of quantum mechanics set themselves up as authorities and chide the rest of us for our supposed lapses.

I saw it too

Thanks to the readers who have pointed out the column by Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander about the error-ridden baseball article by Tom Boswell. Sadly, Mr. Alexander’s explanation makes all the sense in the world. Newspapers have not only reduced the size and number of their pages, but have also adopted other cost-cutting measures that result in ever-earlier deadlines. What happened at The Post also happened at The Sun in my time there. The earlier deadlines make it difficult to get any late news into the paper, and readers the next morning wonder why they don’t have the scores of games. Or articles are railroaded into print right on deadline, with regrettable consequences.

What subscribers might also keep in mind as they wonder how shoddy copy gets into print is — c’mon, you knew this was coming — that the evisceration of newspaper copy desks leaves fewer people available to handle late or troublesome stories. With regrettable consequences.

*I have campaigned against this simple-minded and pointless transition for years, but it is harder to eradicate from journalism than Clinton jokes from a Letterman monologue. Fortunately, @FakeAPStylebook, which, to my glee, has more followers on Twitter than @APStylebook, ruled yesterday: “If the second paragraph of your story begins with ‘He/she isn't the only one,’ don't come back to work on Monday.”