Tossing a snowball or two

Posted: Mar 24, 2007 11:06 AM

Memory fails. A long time ago a popular comic strip thrived upon one gag, endlessly repeated: Two mischievous little boys throw snowballs at a pompous old fellow in a high silk hat. Was this impudence in Jiggs & Maggie? The Katzenjammer Kids?

No matter. In that splendidly iconoclastic spirit, we turn to USA Today, the most widely circulated newspaper in the world. It boasts some excellent reporters, e.g., Joan Biskupic at the Supreme Court, but it often is abominably edited. Let us toss a snowball or two.

A regular feature at USA Today is the Daily Snapshot. One day the poll addressed this question: "What does your boss think about you spending time on line for personal use?" That familiar construction is a gerund, a verbal form ending in "ing" that is dragooned into duty as a noun. It demanded a possessive pronoun, "your spending time." Once they are housebroken, gerunds make lovable pets. We should treat them with care.

On a spring day two years ago, USA Today asked another rhetorical question: Can Bush salvage his second term? The copy editor explained: "The congressional elections that bisect a president's last term has been a grim marker, a place where many a presidency have gone to die." A familiar rule of English grammar decrees that subject and predicate should agree in number, but in editing this caption, the editors appear to have broken the solid old rule into itsy-bitsy pieces.

A year ago the newspaper's film critic reviewed the blockbusting "X-Men: The Last Stand." He looked prophetically to the future: The film, he said, "concludes with two scenes that leaves the door open for another installment." Come now! "Scenes that leaves"? A copy editor blinked.

Another of USA Today's editors was out to lunch when a story about diabetes came to his desk. The date eludes me. The story began: "About one in every 523 young people have been diagnosed with diabetes ..." What's the subject of that lead sentence? "One" or "people"? The verb has to be, "has been diagnosed."

Last September the newspaper's movie critic had kind words for Danielle Panabaker in the role of a teenage daughter. "This child is wise beyond her years, and only the grace and charm of Panabaker's performance saves her." What's the subject of the verb "saves"? It appears to be the plural "grace and charm." If so, it surely deserved a plural verb.

Why throw snowballs only at USA Today? In The New York Times last July, columnist Bob Herbert discoursed on the problems of Israel. He wrote: "As a true friend of Israel, the task of the United States is to work as strenuously as possible to find real solutions to Israel's security." Admirable! But who is this true friend of Israel? It clearly is not "the task of the United States."

The Times truly is a great newspaper -- its daily report ranks in overall excellence with the chronicles of Homer -- but as Quintus Horatius Flaccus aptly said, Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus . Sometimes even good old Homer nods. In drafting a four-column head six weeks ago, some copy editor drowsed: "Six Days of Snow Buries Area Near Lake Ontario." Subject and predicate must agree in number! Horace wrote that maxim too.

Newspapers such as the Times and USA Today publish millions of words every day. The wonderful thing is that they make so few errors in spelling and syntax -- but it's always fun to twist the tails of the biggest lions in the journalistic jungle.