Happy National Grammar Day!
The Times regularly hears from readers about issues of language in its articles. Sometimes the problem is an incorrect word (stationery vs. stationary) or a misspelling (metastisize vs. metastasize), to cite two from the last week. Other times, it’s subject-verb agreement, verb tenses or usage.
In honor of National Grammar Day, here are a few recent grammar-related e-mails from the Readers’ Rep inbox:
Leonard Fenton, whose subject line read “Regularizing irregular past tense verb forms,” wrote:
I’ve been a daily reader of The Times for 40 years or so, and I am a little concerned to have noticed that grammatical standards have become gradually less rigorous at The Times in the past few years. Most obviously, irregular past tense and past participles, those quirky and lovely holdovers from our language's youth, are being unnecessarily regularized.
In the Feb. 27 article on Page A10, “The shows will go on,” the author uses the word “sneaked,” instead of “snuck.” Times usage also often has “he dived,” instead of “ he dove,” and many other examples or regularizing irregular past participles.
We have already lost many lovely and interesting irregular past participles over the centuries, and having a major American newspaper contribute to the demise of proper usage is a shame. Beautiful, fun, interesting words like slept, bitten, leapt, and wrung should keep their place in our complex and diverse language.
The Times relies on a standard dictionary for usage, and that is Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition. That is also the dictionary used by Associated Press for its AP Stylebook, which is very widely used in the newspaper industry.
In Webster’s New World, “sneaked” is the past tense of “sneak.” Likewise, “dived” is the past tense of “dive.” And the 2009 AP Stylebook’s entry reads: “ ‘Sneaked.’ Preferred as past tense of ‘sneak.’ Do not use the colloquial ‘snuck.’ ”
However, Webster’s New World does give “slept” as the past tense of “sleep.” Hopefully we won’t be seeing “sleeped” anytime soon!
Todd Terres of Camarillo has a different pet peeve:
I believe I’ve written to you about this before, but I’ll write again every time I see this error in your paper. In today’s Business section was this: “the same set of 38 tickets for the Springsteen concert in Washington were sold and resold 1,600 times.”
Mr. Terres’ issue is subject-verb agreement. A singular subject takes a singular verb, and in this example, “set” is the subject. “Set” is singular, so it should take a singular verb, “was”: The same set of 38 tickets for the Springsteen concert in Washington was sold and resold 1,600 times. What trips up writers and editors is the prepositional phrase “of 38 tickets,” which modifies “set.” But take out that phrase -- “The same set for the Springsteen concert in Washington was sold and resold 1,600 times” -- and it’s clear which verb to use.
Flo Selfman of Los Angeles questioned word usage:
In today's LATExtra, Page 1, see next-to- last line: “The doctor recommended that he modify his exercise regime to strengthen the leg.”
Mussolini had a "regime"; the president has an exercise "regimen." I'll keep writing as long as your writers keep saying "regime" instead of "regimen.
This is another one for Webster’s New World. Its definition of regime includes “regimen (sense 2),” which is “a regulated system of diet, exercise, etc. for therapy or the maintenance or improvement of health.”
Michael Tullius is impressively well-versed in Times style:
I am pretty sure The Times' style guide directs writers to use the singular for units of measure of 1 or less. For example, 0.40 inch of rain and 0.56 inch of rain, but 1.30 inches of rain. However, in the weather story on Page AA3 today, the writer wrote that "0.40 inches of rain had been recorded in Santa Monica and 0.56 inches had fallen in Burbank."
He’s right. Here’s the example from the style guide:
“When a number less than one is expressed as a decimal, use a zero before the point: 0.23 of an inch of rain.”
Mike J. found an embarrassing mistake:
In the story about the dog that took two bullets, you wrote, "As the dog lain wounded, Michelle hid her baby daughter in a laundry basket and alerted her fiance, who grabbed his gun." The word "lain" just is not used. "As the dog lay wounded..." is proper.
No dictionary or style guide is needed to agree with this reader. However, The Times did not write – or edit! – this article. It’s from a fellow Tribune Co. news organization and was automatically posted to latimes.com. Still, Mike J. is right.
Finally, some encouragement from reader Bonnie Koehler, a fan of language, and possibly USC:
“One looks to newspapers to hold the line on grammar de-evolution. Fight on, L.A. Times!”
Top 10 grammar myths from Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty