There Their

There it is, right in the middle of the September 17, 2018  New York Times op-ed page — a pull quote from an op-ed by Stephen J. Adler, who, as president and editor-in-chief of Reuters, should surely know better: We must reject the idea that everyone is entitled to their own facts. 

What is it about Americans that make it so hard for us to know the difference between singular and plural? (Though running a British news service, Adler’s a Yank.)

“Everyone” is singular. “Their” is plural. This sentence is a mess and this mistake is all too common.

I imagine that Adler and the other people who do this (325 million Americans; looking at you) are trying to avoid the awkward “We must reject the idea that everyone is entitled to his/her own facts.” And I imagine this is especially tempting in the era of #metoo and heightened awareness of gender identity. His/her is so binary, and who says his goes first?

This is more than a matter of pinky-out pickiness about using English as Queen Victoria did. Language — even American English — exists to communicate clearly. Mixing singulars with plurals confuses, not clarifies. I’m used to this now, but the first few times I encountered the use of “their” as a gender-neutral singular I found myself wondering which pair or group of people we were now talking about when a second ago we were talking about just one.

This created in my mind what I call a “speed bump.” Within a second or two I understood what the writer meant. But that second or two slowed me down, threw me off the narrative flow of the article.

This is why I’m such a stickler about tiny mistakes that seem like things about which only a seventh-grade English teacher would care. Throw enough speed bumps in front of your readers and you’ll wear them out. Some might get tired and stop reading even though they’re interested in the topic. Remember, if you don’t get your readers to the very end of the article, you might as well have saved yourself the trouble of researching and writing everything that comes below the place where they stop reading.

The best way around this whole mess of using “their” instead of “his/her” is to make everything in the sentence plural, as in: “We must reject the idea that all of us are entitled to our own facts.” Or: “We must reject the idea that all Americans are entitled to their own facts.” It’s simple; it’s grammatically correct without being pretentious, and it creates no speed bump.




Singularly plural

Find the blunders in this sentence, from a piece I recently edited:

The fiscal year that ended in June 2017 — the most recent for which data is available — shows an increase in homicide….

Easily done. The writer is apparently unaware that data is a plural noun. So the sentence should read, “The fiscal year that ended in June 2017– the most recent for which data are available shows an increase in homicide. (“shows” remains singular because it’s the year that is showing, not the many data.)

How about this oft-repeated canard: “The media is biased against my administration.” Aside from being factually incorrect — news outlets, being large corporations, kowtow to this President just as they always have to every other — but also, like “data,” “media” is a plural noun. So the sentence should read “The media are biased….”

I don’t want to hear any, “we speak English in this country, not Latin,” or, “Hey old man, the language changes.” Making singulars out of plural is above your pay grade as a writer. It’s your job to deploy the language, not advance it along some imaginary evolutionary curve at your own discretion.

Remember, too, young readers, that when you sit to craft a story proposal or a cover letter, you’re probably writing for a grownup who will care about this stuff. This doesn’t mean you can’t use the language of your peers with your peers, just that you must think of proper grown-up English as another language, neither better nor worse than your own, in which you should develop fluency. If you were writing to a Russian, you’d try to write in Russian. If you were writing to an Indonesian, you’d try to write in Bahasa. Same principle; if you’re writing or speaking to a grownup, write and speak in grownup. As Charlemagne famously said, “To have another language is to have another soul.” If you’re early in your career, it wouldn’t hurt to develop the soul and language of a grownup.


Screaming Bore Such

In fact, the rock and roller and aspiring parliamentarian formally known as the third earl of Harrow spelled his stage name and nom de politique “Screaming Lord Sutch,” but I needed a headline for this column about eradicating the phrase “such as” from your writing.

I found this sentence recently in a piece I was editing: “The Pan American Health Organization has reported outbreaks and increasing numbers of patients with diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, measles, and diphteria.”

So what’s wrong with that? Technically, nothing. But “such as” is such a clunker of a word-pair to drop into an otherwise compelling sentence. It adds no real information; it just sets up a list. This is better: “The Pan American Health Organization has reported outbreaks and increasing numbers of patients with such diseases as malaria, tuberculosis, measles, and diptheria.”

See how much more swiftly the sentence moves? All it takes is moving the “such” to a position in front of collective noun — in this case, “diseases” — instead of after it and you not only excise that two-word tumor in the middle of your sentence; you also rid yourself of a comma. Try it yourself on any sentence containing “such as.” You’ll be amazed. And you’ll be amazed at how often writers fail to make this simple improvement.

Last Word: Bob Woodward

Bob Woodward, who practically invented the anonymous source (see: Throat, Deep) had perhaps the best criticism of the anonymous op-ed. Since he’s Bob Woodward, and we’re all tired of the topic, let’s make this the last word.

Speaking on the New York Times’s excellent podcast “The Daily,” * Woodward said his biggest problem with the anonymous op-ed was that it was almost wholly lacking in specifics. Dig, for example, this line from it: “Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.”

“What meetings? When? With who present?” Woodward asked. “What decisions? Walked back how?” A reporter of Woodward’s caliber I imagine, would have made that graph read something like: Meetings, such as the one on March 9 about the alarming growth of the Chinese Navy, veer off topic. As Secretary of Defense James Mattis and members of the National Security Council looked on, the President veered from the South China Sea into the unfairness of the designated-hitter rule.”

Woodward is right, of course, and I’m ashamed I didn’t pick up on the op-ed’s vacuity when I first read it. I suspect that I was so surprised to find an anonymous op-ed on the Times’s op-page that I wasn’t expected anything of substance therein.

This is another reason op-ed page editor James Bennet should have handed this off to the newsroom; a good reporter never would have let a source be so vague, and The Times has very good reporters. Unfortunately, the reporter probably would have let this person speak “off the record,” which, I explain here, is neither wise nor necessary.

True, this person likely would have been fired for speaking openly. But dude, you and your buddies are committing mutiny, running a quiet coup d’état in the West Wing because you claim to love our democracy so much. It should hardly be necessary to point out that many, many Americans have sacrificed a lot more than cushy jobs for love of the Republic. I write about a few here, here, and here. I hope that had the Times assigned this piece to a reporter, the reporter would have said just this to the source: “C’mon. Man up. You claim the Republic is at stake. You can make a sacrifice. And you have a pretty good resumé. You’ll get another job.”

Unlikely, though. Journalists, like the rest of us, have come to consider losing a soft and influential job — like White House Chief of Staff, say, or Secretary of Defense– as the worst thing that can happen to a person, and a risk that no sane person would take. Pity. We can expect more from our public servants, especially ones who wear, or have worn, the uniform.


*If you haven’t discovered The Daily, I highly recommend it. Every weekday, its host interviews a Times reporter covering a particular story. It’s informal, engaging, and full of information that didn’t make the paper.



The Anonymous Op-Ed Again

Oooh, I love this stuff.

My brother, Andy, took the view that the virtual coup d’etat inside the West Wing — unelected staff essentially running the place to “protect” the country from the President — is major news, and that the Times can’t be faulted for going with it. It’s a good argument. Bob Deans, though, who covered both the Clinton and W White Houses as a correspondent for Cox News Service (flagship paper: The Atlanta Constitution) had a good riposte, to wit:

Andy’s right. But what the Times should have said to the guy was, “be an unnamed source in a news story. Give us the names of others engaged in this exercise and let us verify with them that this is really going on.”

The story would have come out, verified by Times reporters instead of us readers being forced to take this one guy’s word for it, and the Times wouldn’t have compromised the integrity of its op-ed page. In fact, it would have broken a major story on the strength of its reporting. I think Bob is right, too.


The anonymous New York Times op-ed

So much is wrong with the anonymous op-ed that ran in the September 6 New York Times that it’s hard to know where to begin. The people whom Donald Trump hired to manage his administration — the author of the op-ed presumably among them — were not elected. If they disagree with the President, their only honorable option is to criticize publicly and face the consequences, or resign. I found it chilling to read that such people instead are “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda.” So who’s in charge? What are their names? When do we get to ask them questions?

The author makes much of the President’s “amorality” and the “unsung heroes” love of country. But it doesn’t take much heroism to whisper anonymously behind the boss’s back. If things are as bad as “anonymous” says they are, we should be seeing an exodus from the West Wing and hearing explicit, detailed, and thoroughly owned descriptions of what goes on there. That we’re not, and getting this thin gruel instead, is a sign that love of country is eclipsed by love of job.

That a paper as justifiably respected as the Times agreed to participate in this is disgraceful. When approached by “anonymous,” editorial page editor James Bennet should have politely explained that the price of admission to America’s most influential page is a willingness to stand behind one’s words. I’ve written about journalism’s corrosive habit of off-the-record and anonymous sourcing here.

“We have sunk low with him,” writes anonymous, “and allowed our discourse to be stripped of civility.” Maybe. But at least most of those engaging in uncivil discourse have the courage to stand and do so publicly. “Cries of “fake news!” and scurrilous, unsupported rumor-mongering on social media have eroded the public’s faith in a free press. The Times has deepened that hole.


Less and fewer

My pet, Peeve,* and I have a bone to pick with some of you.

At Lucky’s Supermarket yesterday, a clerk said that if I had less than ten items she could check me out of the store through her unoccupied line. We all clear about the mistake she made?

Do not mix up “less” and “fewer.” They are not the same thing. If you’re talking about things that you can count — from grocery items to light years, it’s “fewer.” If you’re talking something you can’t count, it’s “less.”

So: fewer gallons but less water. Fewer people but less crowding. Fewer reasons to read this blog but less patience with my linguistic carping. Like that.

This shit matters, people.




*Thank you, William Safire, whose joke this is.