Even a little ambiguity

Posted: Jul 17, 2006 12:01 AM

This was a headline in USA Today on April 28: "Mass Transit Not an Option for All Drivers."

Did you wince? Roll your eyes? Did you groan? Then you have the soul of a grammarian, and will go to heaven when you die. You will become a copy editor on the Pearly Gates Gazette. There you will lecture the seraphim on the distinction between "all" and "not all," and you will explain to them that if mass transit is not an option for "all" drivers, it cannot be an option for even one driver.

Then you will deliver a second lecture. Its theme will be: Even a little ambiguity is a dangerous thing. The problem with this Horrid Example is that it creates a nanosecond of uncertainty -- a hesitation that could have been avoided by, "Not All Drivers Have Option of Mass Transit." The English language, as the venerable E.B. White once remarked, lies in wait to leap upon the inattentive writer. For the thousandth time, let me beg you: Read your copy, read your copy! Then read it once again.

Onward! A few weeks ago an editorial writer for The New York Times turned out a neat little mignon on the floods of June. (In our racket, an editorial writer's mignon is the whipped cream equivalent of a dessert chef's trifle.) The writer was rattling along quite nicely until he reached his penultimate sentence. It read: "Anyone who works outside for a living ... has more or less used up a year's supply of stoicism already, with most of the summer still ahead of them."

Ahead of them? You can't hook the plural referent "them" to the singular antecedent "anyone." To which the writer instantly replies, "The hell I can't! I just did." A moment's reflection would have emended the sentence: "Those who work outside for a living have more or less used up ..."

On June 30 a critic for The Washington Post reviewed the musical "Annie." She informed us that "the Tony-winning original production was staged by Martin Channin and he directs this touring version, which is in town through Sunday."

Let us think about that sentence as Liz Barrett thought about Bob Browning. How do I abhor thee? Let me count the ways. The reporter coupled a passive verb (was staged) to an active verb (he directs). Then she tacked on a "which" clause. It hung onto the sentence like a tired-out tail on a debilitated donkey. Nothing in that review became it like the ending of it.

In the galaxy of syndicated columnists, the Post's George F. Will ranks with Ursa Major. He even looks like a Great Bear, but -- beware of mixed allusions -- he sometimes nods like good old Homer. A few weeks ago he slipped away from politics long enough to write a change-of-pace piece about Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind." It was the novel's 70th birthday.

As it appeared in newspapers almost everywhere, Will's column for June 24 began: "Confined to her bed in Atlanta by a broken ankle and arthritis, her husband gave her a stack of blank paper and said, 'Write a book.'"

The sun had barely crept above the eastern rim before my computer shuddered with e-mails from across the continent. Typically, Gary Nelson in Medford, Ore., and Jan Beaujon in Charleston, S.C., expressed their incredulity. Why was Ms. Mitchell's husband confined to her bed? And why had the famous columnist dwelled upon their conjugal relations? After all, they had wed a long time ago.

A postscript must be added. When the column appeared in Will's home paper on June 25 it began, chastely, "Confined to her bed in Atlanta ... she was given a stack of blank paper by her husband ..." Everybody should have a copy editor like Will's copy editor at the Post.

(Readers are invited to send dated citations of usage to Mr. Kilpatrick in care of this newspaper. His e-mail address is kilpatjj@aol.com.)