Connections: Grammar Curmudgeons

We have to face the fact that language is changing faster and faster

We (the editorial we, that is) began the year with trepidation. To begin with, we no longer think we can count on The New York Times as an exemplar of proper English and, adding insult to injury, we have to face the fact that language is changing faster and faster.

In addition to having its own strict set of arcane rules and traditional spellings and such, The Star has tried to adhere to Times style over the years, considering its published “Manual of Style and Usage” journalistic gospel. We have never favored A.P. style, the standard for many if not most publications around the country; it just isn’t as refined as we like the written word to be.

Like newspapers everywhere, The Times has been radically affected by digital media. Not only are new guidelines pervasive, but old standards have slipped. Like other newspapers and magazines, The Times has cut back its staff and reorganized its operations, with the old “copy desk” — responsible for keeping texts pristine — actually wiped out of existence in a shakeup last year that, in newspaper circles, was considered really quite cataclysmic.

With fewer editors on the job and stories shunting with greater haste from submission to digital publication, it is not surprising that errors crop up more frequently. I noticed the word “unknown” spelled “unkown,” for example, only last Sunday. 

But the sea changes in the world of the printed word are about more than haste and happenstance. Consider, for example, a new book called “A World Without ‘Whom’: The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age.” BuzzFeed? Before deciding whether to get a copy of “A World Without ‘Whom,’ ” we have to decide if BuzzFeed is a worthy oracle. Emmy Favilla, the author of the book, has been called a guru of social media dialect; she handles the quandaries that arise as online communication re-engineers our language. Apparently, BuzzFeed gets around 9 billion (!) “content views” per month. Does volume of readership create authority? Or does mass consumption just facilitate a vast dumbing-down? Hm. 

In any case, debates about “who” and “whom” could be heard with a certain regularity around the Star office over the years. We have often deferred to Jack Graves, our Yale-educated sports editor, on grammar, but Jack’s ideas may now be . . . past tense. He’s the only person hereabouts who invariably uses parallel verb tenses, for example. (Parallel verb tenses? He would not write in the same sentence that he “finished” his lunch and “was finishing” his sandwich.) 

But back to the turmoil at The Times. 

One absolute no-no around here is what is called false title, or coined title. At The Times — and The Star — only formal titles (Mayor or Judge, for example) precede a person’s name. “Architect Frank Lloyd Wright” is not seen, or “actor Tom Hanks.” Instead, you will read “the architect Frank Lloyd Wright” or “Maziar Behrooz, an architect who lives in East Hampton.” 

I haven’t noticed any false titles in The Times so far, but I expect to see them any day now, as those who write, edit, and proofread what we used to call the Gray Lady become less particular than they used to be. 

It seems that The Times is trying hard not to be quite so Gray, as we forge into the unforeseeable future, to be more modern, both visually and verbally.

I am a grammar curmudgeon and have spent many decades sticking up for the old linguistic ways, going to battle over false title and the Oxford comma. (In case you hadn’t noticed, we do use the Oxford comma here at The Star, considering it proper, pleasing, and crucial for clarity, too.) But we have already given way on “whom,” as well as on the old “more than” versus “over” debate. 

Over 200 million BuzzFeed readers can’t be wrong, can they?