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Or is it ‘whom’? When editors don’t know, readers do. Other gaffes, too, bring notes of frustration from grammarians. This journal will give those readers a chance to try to save the language, and editors a chance to explain how sometimes The Times is actually right. (Or at least the editors are not always wrong: For instance, according to the L.A. Times stylebook, and unlike what some readers believe, splitting infinitives isn’t a cause for hanging.)
Following are two answers to often-asked questions that come with the grammar corrections, and responses as well for two recent goofs.
Yes, the newsroom knows that it can’t rely on spellcheck.
No, The Times has not had proofreaders -- at least not by that name -- for many years.
Their jobs -- checking printed pages against original copy, particularly to correct errors that occurred in mechanical typesetting -- became largely obsolete with the advent of computerized typesetting, which eliminated several steps of the production process. However, reading of proof pages can still be an important step on the way to perfecting the final product, and that function now usually falls to copy editors, among their other duties.
As is often the case, though, the readers were right regarding a caption in the print version of The Times on Friday with a story about cleanup plans for a Navajo reservation.
The story was about the Environmental Protection Agency’s telling House members that it planned to test again for toxic substances. (Reader response to that overall story -- a follow-up to a series in 2006 by Judy Pasternak -- will be noted in a separate posting later this week.) At least a dozen readers wrote about the caption, which said in part, ‘People and horses have drank...’
Victoria Yust of Venice spoke for many when she said, ‘The past participle of ‘drink’ is ‘drunk’ and the sentence should have read: ‘People and animals have drunk the water.’ Could you please pass that on to the appropriate person(s)?’
The spokesman for the appropriate people is Clark Stevens, who oversees style and usage for The Times. Says Stevens:
‘’Horses have drank ...’ is an obvious and elementary error and I’m not sure how we fell into it. We have also been sunk more than once by misuse of the participles of ‘sink,’ so it’s something we’ll be watching for.’
Another sign that those who love the language are reading closely is concern over the use of verbs with collective nouns.
An example is this line from an Oct. 27 piece: ‘At some studios, the first wave of letters are going out today, hitting writer-producers whose companies don’t currently have shows in production.’
Wrote Carolyn Ziegler-Davenport of Pine Mountain Club, CA: ‘I was unaware that the word ‘wave’ had become plural. It is only one ‘wave’ of no matter how many letters, and should therefore be ‘the first wave of letters is (not ‘are’) going out today.’ If you are hiring copy editors, I am available.’
‘There is often confusion and disagreement over whether collective nouns such as wave should be treated as singular or plural. Most can be either, depending on whether the writer wants to emphasize the sense of a group as a unit, or the sense of many individuals making up a group. The rules of grammar often seem to dictate the singular, but common-sense usage sometimes requires the plural. In this case, though, the singular ‘wave of letters is going out’ clearly would have been better. But I hope a wave of readers are (yes, are) not going to express their (not its) dismay.
As to the last line in Ziegler-Davenport’s note -- an offer made by many who write about such matters -- Stevens adds, ‘Unfortunately, we are not hiring copy editors at the moment. But when we do, they have to know a lot more than grammar. They’ll need to spend time brushing up on history, geographical names, math, police procedures, Internet protocols, popular music, newsroom procedures, wordplay, sports, government, and the ability to stay alert late into the night .... And did I mention working weekends?’