A Grammar Rant to Start the Year

Last Friday, the first day of 2016, I sent the following letter to the Public Editor of the New York Times. I knew I was beating a dead horse. I understood that ranting about the proper use of "lie" and "lay" is a lost cause, but I did it anyway:

To the public editor of the New York Times:

It happened again yesterday, Dec. 31. In an article on the front of the Arts section by Doreen Carvajal describing an installation at the Pompidou Center, the second paragraph begins: "Waves of undulating sand are dotted with upright slabs of mushrooms. A rusting machine gun lays across a hospital gurney...."

It also happened on Nov. 29, 2015 in a laudatory review of the book Like Family by Paolo Giordano, written by Jennifer Senior: "All while Mrs. A. lays dying--the ultimate solitary experience..."

As a professional journalist, I flinch every time I encounter a grammatical error like this in my beloved Times. (Interestingly, when I looked up the Senior book review online today, the error had been corrected.)

Three years ago I wrote on my blog "A Rolling Crone",

It's always an error in the New York Times that sends me off on a grammar rant -- and there was another one today (Thursday, March 28). In the Style Section, in a large, bold pull-quote from an article about photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith taken in the 1960s, I read: "After laying dormant for decades, a second life for photographs taken of a pair of artists on the cusp of fame." Of course, it's supposed to be: "after lying dormant..."

In the olden days, when I was being trained in New York Times style at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, these errors would have been caught by people called copy editors, but I can only imagine that, in this very difficult period for all print media, the Times has been forced to fire all its copy editors for economic reasons.

That thumping noise you hear is the late, lamented Times editor Ted Bernstein spinning in his grave. Once upon a time, Theodore M. Bernstein was the watchman of the venerable Great Gray Lady as well as a professor at Columbia J School. After he died in 1979, Time Magazine noted, "Theodore M. Bernstein, 74... served as the paper's prose polisher and syntax surgeon for almost five decades, authoring seven popular texts on English usage and journalism... In a witty Times house organ called 'Winners and Sinners,' the shirtsleeves vigilante caught solecists in the act."

At Columbia J School we often saw Bernstein's "Winners and Sinners" newsletter. Somewhat like the judges on American Idol, Ted Bernstein would periodically praise a brilliant headline or turn of phrase in the NYT and chide and make fun of grammatical and syntactical lapses.

You might reply to me that nowadays, when almost no one uses "lie" and "lay" correctly, the readers of the Times don't care about grammatical errors. That's what I thought too. But when the post quoted here was published on the Huffington Post, on April 4, 2013, it received 958 likes, 243 shares and 728 comments -- by far the largest response I've ever had to a post.

Please hire a copy editor! The Times was the last bastion (in the U.S.) of proper English.