Thursday, May 29, 2014

Grammar errors in the Times – an editorial

Only a few decades ago, The New York Times could produce a near-perfect newspaper every day. No longer, unfortunately. Let me illustrate with a brief personal anecdote:

During the mid-1970s, I supervised an editing staff at Honeywell. In our downtime, my editors and I often looked for grammar errors in the newspapers. Whenever one of us spotted an error in the Times, we stared at it in disbelief. Then I clipped it out and dropped the clip into a file folder labeled “Errors in NYT.”

Years later, when I was tidying up my office before leaving for a new job within Honeywell, I noticed that the “Errors in NYT” folder contained only four clips.

Nowadays, you could probably spot four errors every day. In fact, I recently spotted six errors in a single paragraph of a Times blog. Here’s the paragraph:
“Girls enter school with a lead on boys, and schools then fail to close the gaps. Instead, they increase. The behavioral advantage that girls have over boys in kindergarten, based on teachers’ assessments of their students, are even larger in fifth grade.” (Source)

In the first sentence, the writer uses the noun lead; later in the same sentence he uses the noun gap for (presumably) the same thing. (Elegant variation.)

Also, he confusingly switches from a singular lead to a plural gaps.

In the second sentence, the pronoun they could plausibly have any of four antecedents: girls, lead, schools, or gaps.

Also in the second sentence, it is not completely clear whether the verb increase means that the gap between the average girl and the average boy has widened.

In the third sentence, the writer adds another elegant variation, advantage. Now we have, within one brief paragraph, three words for the same thing.

Also in the third sentence, the singular subject, advantage, is followed by a plural verb, are.

The Takeaway: The New York Times, once legendarily fastidious, has become careless. If you want to read the Times as a way to improve your knowledge of English (many students and foreigners do this), I suggest you read only articles published before 1970. However, that usually requires fees, so I prefer to check pre-1970 books out of my local library at no cost, or download them from Project Gutenberg at no cost.

See disclaimer.

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