A Grammar Geek Reads the Newspaper

This past Saturday, in the tradition of John Allen Paulos’s 1997 book A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, I picked up the papers delivered to the front door—the Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Times—and read them, even more so than usual, with an eye to grammar, usage and other language trends they might reflect.

I suppose I was struck, first, by how relatively few the mistakes or nonstandard usages were. Think of it: The papers contained I don’t know how many thousands of sentences, yet the vast majority were as kosher as a Ratner’s onion roll!

Not all of them, however. A consequence of newspapers’ hard times that’s been little discussed (outside the industry) has been a sharp reduction in the number of copy editors, the unsung last line of defense against all sorts of errors, and here and there in my reading I could detect their absence. Thus the start of an Inquirer article on the local pro basketball team’s victory was a syntactical train wreck: “It was one of, if not the most, impressive quarters of the season. … ” A seasoned copy editor could have fixed that in a snap, to, for example, “It was one of the most impressive quarters of the season. It may have been the most impressive. … ” But too many seasoned copy editors had accepted the paper’s last buyout, and were probably on a beach somewhere sipping a Corona.

Not for nothing am I referred to in some quarters as “the comma maven,” and I noted some harrumphable lapses in this regard. In a Lizette Alvarez Times article about a Florida tree known as “the Senator” I read:

So on Monday, when word got out that the huge, 3,500-year-old bald cypress had burned and collapsed, people from the area who thought that nothing—not hurricanes, not loggers, not disease—could fell the Senator, sank into disbelief.

Of course, the comma after Senator—a comma separating a lengthy noun phrase from a verb—would have been considered correct by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and the authors of the U.S. Constitution. The Times sentence suggests that after a century or so of being incorrect, it’s now inching its way back to acceptance. (That also seems to be the case with inserting a comma between an indirect object and a direct object, as in the ad slogan “It’s what makes a Subaru, a Subaru.”)

Another vexed and maybe changing punctuation protocol came up in a reference in the Times to a politico “who was a longtime adviser to Mr. Gingrich but is a friend of Mr. Santorum. … ” My father-in-law, who was a native of Gaeta, Italy, insisted to his dying day that one should not say “a friend of Bob’s” but rather “a friend of Bob,” the word of indicating all the sense of possession that’s needed. There’s a certain logic to his case, cracked only partially by thinking about the difference between “a picture of Bob” and “a picture of Bob’s” or, indeed, by asking whether one would refer to “a friend of me” rather than “a friend of mine.” The Times‘ practice here may suggest that my father-in-law’s way is on the march. Or it may merely have been a case of a copy editor nodding.

For some reason, the questionable stuff in Saturday’s Times seemed to coalesce around its Gingrich coverage—and especially in headlines and captions, which are handled by the copy desk. A front-page story about the candidate’s political partnership with his wives continued on the inside of the paper, with the head: “For Gingrich, Wives Have Served as Much as Political Partners.” Headlines have their own syntactical rules, but I’m pretty sure in this one, the words as Much are useless and confusing.

The captions had even more problems. One (referring to his second wife) reads: “Newt Gingrich, then speaker, took Marianne with him, and President Carter, to the funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel in 1995.” The phrase and President Carter has major sore-thumb qualities.

Below another photo we’re told: “Mr. Gingrich, in 1976, with his wife Jackie, and daughters, Jackie Sue and Kathleen. They divorced soon after winning a seat in Congress.” First of all, if there’s a comma after Jackie, there has to be one before the word as well. But even worse is the second sentence, which asserts that the whole Gingrich clan won the seat—Jackie Sue and Kathleen included—then got divorced.

The only appropriate response to this sort of mess is to make like a reporter in an old-school newspaper movie and scream out:


Unfortunately, in too many new-school newsrooms, there’d be no one to respond.




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