Readers' Representative Journal

A conversation on newsroom ethics and standards

« Previous Post | Readers' Representative Journal Home | Next Post »

More thoughts on Jerry Brown's grammatical gaffe

August 24, 2011 | 11:53 am

“Even if you do learn to speak correct English, whom are you going to speak it to?”  --Clarence Darrow

Gov. Jerry Brown This is a postscript to Saturday's “Postscript” column. A post-Postscript, if you will.

In the column, reader Gene Axelrod questioned whether Gov. Jerry Brown, describing his fear at seeing a child at the edge of a steep drop-off at Yosemite National Park, actually said: "If they slipped, they would have went right over."

And, Axelrod wondered, did The Times "forget to insert the signal [sic] after 'went' "?

The discussion led to some follow-up questions and comments from readers.

Tony Newhall of Valencia saw a missed opportunity to explain what was wrong with Brown's quote:

"Shouldn't you have added a short sentence saying Mr. Axelrod was bothered that the governor used the past tense 'went' when he should have used the past participle 'gone' (as in 'they would have gone right over.')?"

And two readers thought the discussion ignored a pronoun problem.

"What about he/they?" asked Walter Hall. "Wasn't it equally grammatically egregious for the governor to switch from third person singular (looking at him) to third person plural (If they slipped)?"

Brian Fodera of Los Angeles agreed. "So much thought and ink was devoted to whether the governor should have gone with 'gone'  instead of 'went' that the governor's twice referring to a young boy as 'they' managed to slip through without remark," he wrote.

They’re both good points. The quote was a mess, grammatically.

Fodera added: "Perhaps the governor's quote should have read: 'It made me shake just looking at him. It's dangerous. If they [sic] slipped, they [sic] would have went [sic] right over.' "

Speaking of "sic," Newhall also suggested that a definition would have been helpful. He's right.

From Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition: "used within brackets, [sic], to show that a quoted passage, esp. one containing some error or something questionable, is precisely reproduced."

However, as Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann noted in the column, The Times' style and usage guide advises against the use of "sic" unless it is part of the material being quoted, such as a transcript. "If it is necessary to note an error in quoted matter, it's best to simply point it out," the stylebook entry says.

"Our avoidance of the term is in keeping with our general approach of not altering quotes or interfering through the overuse of brackets," Fuhrmann said.

Giuseppe Mirelli of Los Angeles was concerned that The Times had downplayed the grammatical error.

"It is quite alarming that an editor of a national newspaper finds that the improper use of verb tenses to be inconsequential when indeed it is consequential and imperative for clarity in expository writing," he wrote. "Our language is not evolving, as many claim it to be the case when a malapropism is admonished. Our language is devolving at a rapid pace thanks to educated people who marginalize good grammar."


Letters to the Editor: Good grammar in the paper

--Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at his Los Angeles office in June. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times