Coming and going
A reader called the city desk the other day to complain about a headline in The Sun, and the city desk gave her my number (much obliged, Maryann). She sounded older, educated, well-spoken, the kind of read whom The Sun has always attracted and valued. And she had a beef.
The headline on Page 1A that she disliked was Coming to Afghanistan, about the support the Obama administration plans for the Afghan effort against the Taliban and al-Qaida. The article was by David Wood, a Sun reporter stationed in Washington, and the headline was by the copy desk over which I have some supposed authority.
It should have been Going to Afghanistan, she said, because the aid is going from here to there. It is like the distinction between bring and take, she said, the directional verbs about which people are either appallingly ignorant or shamefully careless.
I could have made some kind of case for the headline, since the tone of the article was less about our sending aid than about the aid arriving in Afghanistan and what it would be used for there — as in coming to a theater near you. But the game didn’t seem worth the candle, and I manfully accepted her reproof.
She went on to widen the rebuke, to insist that errors are more numerous and that mastery of the language has declined shockingly. I murmured polite acknowledgements of hearing her views, and after a while she rang off.
I believe that she is mistaken. It is not just that we get complaints about the violation of rules that are not valid rules of grammar and usage; I dispute the premise that there used to be a golden age of proper writing.
Item: I was taught the grammar and usage the old-fashioned way in public schools in Fleming County, Kentucky, by rote, with sentence diagramming and spelling tests, with instruction by teachers who would brook no breach of the Rules. None of that slack, lah-de-dah progressivism. But I have reason to suspect that if you were to round up my former schoolmates and examine their mastery of the language, their skills would be no better than average, and very likely below average.
Item: When I was an undergraduate at Michigan State, a friend, Andy Scheiber, offered to help a fellow student in a Milton class review for the midterm. Arriving at his dormitory room, she opened up her Merritt Y. Hughes edition of Paradise Lost and asked, “Now who’s this Sa-TAN; he’s in there a lot.” By now, one hopes, she has put in her 35 years as a schoolteacher and retired. I also saw some of the work of fellow teaching assistants in graduate school at Syracuse, and some of them should have been kept from the classroom at bayonet point.
Item: I have in my office memos and in-house newsletters on writing and editing stretching back to the early 1970s, and what they show is that the staff of The Sun has been responsible for the same damn lapses in grammar and usage, year in and year out, over that entire span.
No, shoddy writing is not a new phenomenon; it is a constant.
What is changing is the neglect or outright abandonment of editing by newspapers, magazines, book publishers and Internet sites, accompanied by a load of codswallop about greater immediacy and direct interaction between writer and reader — all of it cant to disguise that the management is no longer willing to pay for accuracy and precision. People will write as sloppily as they always have; you’ll merely see them without their stage makeup.