Results! Results?

OK, folks, the results are in. This week, I’ll begin with some discussion of the discussion of the survey questions, and an observation about the results in general. Next week, more on the results, so stay tuned.

Questions first. Many quibbled about assumptions in the ways in which I framed my choices No. 1 – No. 5. Those who are interested can go to the Comments section from that post. Generally I was criticized, first, for making black-and-white distinctions; and second, for presuming that the reason to object to a sentence would be its “error,” which begged the question of the survey in the first place by assuming that my notion of an error would be something we all need to pay attention to.

For my category No. 4, I accepted as a friendly amendment the wording “An established variant of the standard language, although prescriptive grammarians consider it to be incorrect.” Since various people write various textbooks, it was argued, my reference to textbook “rules” was too sweeping to be intelligible; also, by not accounting for variations in dialect, I was buying into a prescriptive/descriptive dichotomy that is unhelpful. OK, fine—though the rewording does require the reader to have concepts of both “established variants” and “prescriptive grammarians,” and one can imagine quibbles on both counts.

Another suggestion wanted choices No. 1 and No. 2 to represent actual errors, followed by No. 3 which refers to an infelicity, No. 4 to a pet peeve, and No. 5 to well-written English by the reader’s standard. With the exception of No. 4—which did seem to irk a lot of folks—this set-up was more or less my intention, and the reason I chose the words “blunder” (No. 1), “error” (No. 2), “poor choices” (No. 3), and “certain choices” (No. 4). Many would have preferred No. 5 to allow for the reader’s feeling that some might object to this sentence even though the reader doesn’t. That suggestion, with all due respect, I reject. First, I believe that choice is already there in varying degrees; second, there are so many reasons to object to sentences (one person would have preferred “insipid” to “anodyne”) that the information gained might not have been worth much; and third, I find it fascinating that one reader would find an error so egregious as to merit firing whereas another quite literally does not see an error. Why fascinating? Because, to me, such a range of responses suggests that we come to this business of standard written English not only with different criteria but with different sorts of knowledge. If I am able, for instance, to spot a Strunk-worthy dangling participle but it doesn’t bother me in the slightest, I am a very different reader from the reader who does not see a dangling participle or doesn’t know what such a creature is.

We come, then, to the range of results. Please note that these do not add up perfectly and are not in exact accord with the comments posted on my Lingua Franca column. Some e-mailed their responses; not everyone ranked every sentence. But in the flawed set we do have, the No. 1’s have it. There are 43 votes total for firing copy editors, as opposed to 38, 40, 33, and 15 respectively for the other categories. In general, the self-selected group of respondents to LF are durned harsh critics of these Times sentences.

Responses to No. 2 and No. 3 are close to equivalent—surprising, if you imagine quite different readers choosing one category over the other. Choosing No. 2 implies that you deplore an error and attribute it to a larger problem in the culture. No. 3 implies that you’re less concerned about the culture than about the sentence’s functionality. Though more readers were vocal about choice No. 4 than any other choice, it drew fewer votes—perhaps because of the wording of the category, or because those who objected to that wording opted out of the survey.  Finally, five of the eight sentences garnered at least some who saw no problems, but for only one sentence (5/8, Editorial) did the number of people seeing no problem exceed the number seeing a fireable offense.

What I conclude from this broad summary of results may indicate my intention in playing this game. Given the sparks flying between at least two groups of people (groups that may or may not include professional linguists on the one hand and nonlinguists on the other), I wondered if there was much agreement when, as one respondent elsewhere noted, the rubber hits the road. We may all have students of different writing abilities and have different expectations for them, just as we all experience different idioms and dialects in speech and in other forms of writing, but here we have one prominent newspaper whose writing and editing are generally expected to set a standard for journalism. Do we a) all hold its writers and editors to a roughly similar standard, and b) hold them to different standards when it comes to, say, questions of word choice as opposed to questions of syntax? Some of you may share my curiosity about these things. Some may believe that curiosity is itself misplaced or betrays bias. But what I’ve found with this scattershot evidence is that the first law of social science holds: Some do, some don’t. Next week, I’ll take a closer look at one or two of these ranges and make some wild speculations about what’s going on.

Date/Link Sentence 1 2 3 4 5
4/9: Technology Which begs the perennial question of Silicon Valley: Is this more evidence, convincing evidence, that the tech industry is again on the verge of another bubble popping? 7 7 5 4
5/2: Opinion Arizona police may arrest, without a warrant, anyone whom they have probable cause to believe has committed “any public offense that makes the person removable from the United States.” 8 4 6 2 3
Poring over the argument transcript and the briefs, what finally came through as most deeply troubling was this: . . . 8 3 5 4
5/7: Magazine We’ve heard them giving defensive testimony in Congressional hearings or issuing anodyne statements flanked by lawyers and image consultants. 6 6 5 2 2
If anybody was going to be shy with a reporter, I figured, it was him. 2 4 5 8 2
5/8: Editorial He began his remarks by saying Mr. Obama sets these policies, not him. 2 4 6 4 4
5/8: Arts Her charm comes in part from her relatability, which is used to ample effect in her next film. 5 7 4 4
5/13: Sunday Review She was won over by faculty and admissions staff members who urge students to pursue their dreams rather than obsess on the sticker price. 5 3 4 5 4


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