Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Why the Grammar Errors in The New York Times?

One of their editors explains:

Q. What's with all the grammatical errors in the Times? I grew up hearing that I should polish my English grammar by reading the Times, but over the past couple of years I've gotten the impression that many of your writers must not even have graduated from high school!

Particularly striking is the number of errors relating to agreement between noun and verb, i.e. number errors.

Tell me there is hope for The Times. The rest of the country is sliding back to grade school output.

— Peter Kurz

A. I get versions of this question all the time, and I'm sure I'll see more this week, so I may as well try to tackle it now.

Often, as with Mr. Kurz's note, the question includes some variation of the everything-was-better-long-ago theme. Many readers believe that there were fewer factual errors, fewer typos, fewer grammatical lapses in The Times back in the old days. I honestly don't know if this is true, though the perception worries me. I do take a bit of comfort in the fact that I've been hearing similar complaints for all of the 17 years I've been at The Times. Or maybe things really were better up until 17 years ago, when I was hired, and it's been straight down since then. Now that really is something to worry about.

It's possible that there really are more mistakes now than there were 20 or 30 years ago. If so, I truly don't believe it's because today's writers or editors are less talented or conscientious than our predecessors. But I do think The Times today tries to do more than it did years ago. There is more late-breaking news, more variety of sections, topics and stories — and now, of course, there's the Web site, with constant updating of news and a whole new range of offerings. We also have more people handling all these tasks, but it may be that our effort to give readers more means that we fall short of perfection even more often than we once did.

Still, I'm not sure. I also think it's possible that we're making, on average, just about the same number of dumb mistakes we've always made, but that we all have a tendency to think that things were better way back when.

In any case, one thing is clear: we make a lot of mistakes. We make factual errors, which we try rigorously to correct in print and online. We misspell words, we have typos, and yes, sometimes our grammar is just awful. Some such mistakes are inevitable as we handle many tens of thousands of words every day, mostly on tight deadlines. But they should be rare, much rarer than they are. We're trying.

And believe it or not, we're happy to have readers who are sophisticated enough to notice when we slip, and who care enough to let us know.

The editor, Philip B. Corbett, will be answering questions all week.

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