Saturday, August 21, 2010

Times readers talk back to usage czar

The Times's usage blog, After Deadline, mostly addresses the routine matters of house style and word choice -- though its author, Philip Corbett, did draw wider attention recently when it got about that he had recommended replacing tweet with  "post a Twitter update."

This week's edition didn't go that far, but it issued several tin-eared rulings, starting with Corbett's objection to the paper's increased use of hipster. "As a colleague pointed out, we’ve used it more than 250 times in the past year," he said -- you'll notice it wasn't a reader who complained -- and to him, that number implied an unseemly striving for hipness.

Apparently he didn't stop to consider the many shades of irony and self-consciousness with which such a word might be deployed. No, hipster had obviously "lost its freshness." (I suspect that, like many other language watchdogs, Corbett wants to be among the first to call a word "overused," for fear of being among the last.)

Next he condemned the punctuation in the sentence "WikiLeaks was more than just a source, it was a publisher." The problem? "Even in the conversational style of a blog post, this is a 'comma splice.' The two independent clauses need a dash, semicolon or period in between."

And then he invoked a Times usage rule that almost nobody observes, objecting to "the woman, who … had just been diagnosed with lymphoma." Because "as the stylebook notes, the disease is diagnosed, not the patient."

It was disheartening to see the paper of the late Theodore Bernstein so passionately embracing its inner Miss Thistlebottom. But when I went back a few days later to read comments, I got a pleasant surprise. Instead of the usual pile o' peeves, the comments section was a forum for debate on Corbett's actual topics, and a number of contributors begged to differ. For instance:
Usually, I find this column a delight, but today I disagree with Mr. Corbett. At least in its post-2005 "hipster" has a specific meaning that may have some disagreements around the margins but is generally understood. Yes, it's gained in frequency but that is because of its growing popularity (and the ensuing backlash.) Would we have wanted to give yuppie a "rest" in the 80s or look for "alternatives" to hippies in the 60s. I think the New York Times's goal should be to educate rather than obscure in code.
The "comma splice" also had defenders: 

I respectfully disagree on the comma splice example; it reads perfectly as is. Follett’s Modern American Usage gives the following example as "legitimate splicing by commas": "This was not only his first concerto, it was his best."
Most grammarians believe that some comma splices are justifiable, especially those connecting short, related (independent) clauses.
As for "diagnosed with":
As a physician who writes, for years I resisted “diagnosed with” as applied to a patient. At last, I’ve given it up. It has rooted itself deep in the lexicon, and it does serve the useful purpose of shortcutting an otherwise more convoluted locution (the patient was diagnosed as having, was told he/she had, &c). Garner’s Modern American Usage (2003) notes … "This idiomatic syntax is too common to be called erroneous."
Way to go, readers. I had just about sworn off reading newspaper comments, but if debate like this can prevail over peevology, I'll be happy to reconsider.


Charles Matthews said...

I'm just surprised that he didn't insist that "not only" had to be followed by "but also."

jhm said...

It seems that to some the simple fact that "This idiomatic syntax is too common to be called erroneous" is put forth as an argument would be objectionable. The more I ponder the phrase, the more it seems to sum up much of the usage debate. Of course, he uses the qualifier "idiomatic," and doesn't conclude that the usage is correct—it simply lacks errors. Even so, I imagine this from the reverse: a usage which, though once commonly considered correct, is now too rare to be other than idiomatic, if not erroneous.