Sunday, February 15, 2009

Drowning in language errors

Well (to quote the outrageous Little Richard), good golly Miss Molly, it seems that errors surround us.

You would expect that Barack Obama would merit more than his fair number of typos and other errors, given the vast amount of copy dedicated to him since he entered the race for president. You would be correct. Let’s look at two Obama-related grammar mistakes that have jumped into my brain in the last few months.

The first one came from the newspaper wire services: “Obama, wife Michelle and their two young daughters flew to Chicago … .” If you have read and memorized every one of these columns of mine (as you should have), you’d know right away that “wife Michelle” would be correct only if Mr. Obama had more than one wife. That is, you could correctly state that he went with his wife Michelle but his wife Heather did not join them … if he had wives named Michelle and Heather. Otherwise, it should read “Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their two young daughters … .” The commas surrounding “Michelle” make the difference.

There is a daily news update emailed to subscribers from a local TV station, and I always enjoy reaching for a calculator to tally the egregious errors in that daily smile. During the campaign I noticed this in one of the TV news postings: “Obama have pulled ahead of McCain in the three states that have historically chosen the president.” You like that “Obama have”? I think it refers to Barack, Michelle and Heather.

In that very same e-news came this typo about a student with tuberculosis: “The student will the potentially fatal disease has alerted health officials and the community.” If you’re like me, you had to read that thing more than once to figure out that the author meant to describe the student “with,” not “will,” the disease.

Finally, on that same fateful day, the newsletter gave us this: “The Senate now has their turn to vote on the $700B bailout, but also plan to discuss raising the federal deposit insurance limits.” No matter what your position is on whether “The Senate” should be treated as plural or singular, our wonderful e-news did it wrong, at least in part. (Or, the TV people might contend, they did it right, at least in part. Nothing quite like a half-full glass.)

See, we have “The Senate now has.” There’s no question that “has” is singular. “The Senate now has their turn.” We all know that “their” is plural, so we have the collective Senate followed by a singular “has” and a plural “their.” You see? Singular and plural together. But we’re not done. Let me condense the sentence to get to the next problem: “The Senate now has … but also plan to discuss … .” So we have the combo of “The Senate has” with “The Senate plan.” Are you confused by this whole thing? Don’t blame me! (Blame the government.)

Even in People magazine you find uglies (language uglies, that is). The People people certainly have time and expertise to find and correct typographical errors, no? Try this, directly from People: “Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo, who's wife Sunrise Coigney is expecting their third child, joke around … .” Of course you know that it should have been “whose” wife.

A recent photo caption for a wire-service story about the talented basketball-playing Curry brothers reads thus: “Stephen says the game’s traditional powers overlooked both he and Seth.” You know, certainly, the easy test to determine the right pronoun (overlooked “him”). Does everyone make mistakes? Certainly.

Mark Stencel is a prestigious editor and columnist in Washington, D.C., as well as a terrific writer with an astonishing resume. He told me that recently he was a panelist speaking about media careers to a group of journalism students at the University of Virginia. With his focus on online writing and editing, Mark emphasized that in today's world, many journalists are asked to blog frequently, so mastering the discipline and skills to edit one's own writing is critical.

Right after the discussion, Mark received a text message from an eagle-eyed reader, alerting him that in his latest blog posting, Mark had left out an important “r” when he wrote about "an Obama T-shirt."

See there — even with the best of us, shirt happens.