Lynne Truss is my hero. In case you missed her marvelous book, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, Truss is a British writer who does her best to encourage us to maintain some semblance of rules and order when it comes to grammar and using our language properly, whether writing it or speaking it. I happen to be one of those people who admires those who use language correctly and can't help but feel a little less kindly toward those who don't, especially those who should know better.
I'm by no means an expert on language but I'd like to think that writers who get their bylines published in The New York Times are. I'll go you one better than that and say that even if the writers themselves aren't perfect grammarians, certainly the copy editors and people who literally make a living correcting the grammar and spelling of others should be perfect.
I'd be wrong about that, too. I read this just today and had to reread the first paragraph three times to figure out who on earth wrote the letter being discussed. Turns out it was Otto Frank, Anne Frank's father. Except that's not what the article indicated. Here's the opening paragraph. My notes and questions follow:
"On April 30, 1941, just days after a Gestapo courier may have threatened to denounce Anne Frank’s father, Otto, to the Nazis, he wrote to his close college friend Nathan Straus Jr. begging for help in getting his family out of Amsterdam and into America."
What? A Gestapo courier wrote a letter to a close college friend about escaping Amsterdam? Why would a Nazi officer want to...wait a minute, I think I read that wrong....[re-read]...no, it definitely states that the Gestapo officer wrote a letter to a friend just days after he possibly threatened Otto Frank....wait a minute; let me see this....[re-read again]...Oh, I get it. Otto Frank wrote the letter to his college friend looking for help for his escape to America. Except it doesn't say that.
Here's how I think the opening paragraph of this interesting story should read:
On April 30, 1941, just days after a Gestapo courier may have threatened to denounce him to the Nazis, Anne Frank’s father, Otto, wrote to his close college friend Nathan Straus Jr. begging for help in getting his family out of Amsterdam and into America.
Or even better:
On April 30, 1941, just days after a Gestapo courier may have threatened to denounce him to the Nazis, Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father, wrote to his close college friend Nathan Straus Jr. begging for help in getting his family out of Amsterdam and into America.
Again, I'm not some kind of grammar freak or grammar goddess but this is just wrong and it appears in what is arguably the number one newspaper in the country, if not the world. Any misused grammar bugs me but it bugs me even more that it appears on the front page of the NYT.
In this particular case, the problem stems from using antecedents and making them represent the correct noun (or something like that.) I told you I wasn't an expert. According to the Guide to Grammar and Writing website,
"Generally (but not always) pronouns stand for (pro + noun) or refer to a noun, an individual or individuals or thing or things (the pronoun's antecedent) whose identity is made clear earlier in the text." This particular antecedent was about as far from 'made clear' as you can get.
I ask you: Where does it leave us if The New York Times publishes incorrect grammar? I know this isn't nearly the first time this has happened and sadly, it won't be the last. Yes, I'm accustomed to having to read through stories to ferret out the "spin," the agenda, the bias behind a particular story. But having to read the same sentence more than twice to understand the content is asking just a little too much, even for me.