The best and worst of Times

Posted: Dec 18, 2006 8:01 PM

The good gray New York Times has something in common with that little girl who had a little curl. When the Times is good, it is very, very good. Trouble is, now and then it is horrid.

On Dec. 5, having nothing better to do after breakfast, this Constant Reader read the morning Times with unusual care. Thus he fell upon a TV critic's review of "The Bad Girls Club." The critic didn't like it: "The trouble is that the unpleasant villains cancel one another out." Is there any way to cancel something other than to cancel it OUT?

A good rule in the writing art is not to dragoon nouns into duty as adjectives. A Timesman ignored this rule in writing about the selection of James N. Wood as president of the Getty Trust. The Getty's image has been damaged "by a perception that the institution has strayed from its museum roots." Would "roots as a museum" have been better?

A music critic began his review: "For anyone worrying about the survival of the Russian school of volcanic pianism, Yevgeny Sudbin should put your mind at rest." A good copy editor should have taken that sentence up the Hudson and shot it. There is no way that "anyone" can function properly as an antecedent for the referent "your." Could the idea have been better served by "For those who worry ..., Yevgeny Sudbin should put their minds ..."?

Another guide to the writing art cautions against the sentence that runs on and on. Timeswriters tend to ignore that guide: "In the mid-1960s, Dr. Radebaugh, a young pediatrician, volunteered at a clinic for migrant farmworkers in Rochester, and one evening he got a call that a woman was in labor." Again: "Martha Clarke started out in dance, and she still choreographs an occasional piece ..." Again: "The place and time in 'Kaos' are turn-of-the-last century Sicily, and the text is spoken in Italian." And again: "Pirandello had hoped to write a story for each day of the year, and he completed nearly 240 ..." Anyone for periods?

Careful writers will treat "since" with exceptional care when "since" functions as a conjunction. Yes, the usage is permissible. Yes, it is universal. And aaargh! It is constantly irksome. The Times abuses poor "since" all the time, e.g., in an editorial: "Since most of these Kremlin crimes remain unsolved, we can only speculate about who is behind them." Let us ignore the self-important "we" who can only speculate. Would the sentence have been sharper if it began, "Because most of these Kremlin crimes ..."? Of course! The familiar conjunction instantly establishes a causal connection. There is no nanosecond of the temporal confusion that accompanies "since." Nanoseconds are valuable. Waste them not!

In a section on Health and Fitness, a Timesman wrote about pneumonia: "In the last decade, huge progress has been made in preventing pneumonias with vaccine ..." In these temporal constructions, "past decade" almost always works better than "last decade." It avoids a connotation of finality. With "past," we're talking about an interval that just elapsed.

In charity, let us pass over a sentence on page B3: "All this might seem like a lot of material to boil down in 70 minutes." Seem like? Would a plain vanilla "seem" have better served the purpose?

There's a moral to this column: He who wears a top hat will always draw snowballs.