The Proofreaders’ Puzzle

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“Donald Trump’s Governing Styles Has Critics Up in Arms” — thus the headline of an article in U.S. News & World Report (April 14).

Oh, does they?

The article presents evidence that it hasn’t been proofread any better than the headline. Try this passage: “For one thing, it's clear that Trump is not a devotee of reading, whether it's newspapers, books or memos. Instead, he is most moved by what he sees and hears in a most fundamental sense.” I’m still trying to figure out what it would mean to see and hear in a fundamental sense. And a nasty thought creeps into my mind: maybe this stuff has been proofread. Maybe someone was striving for that asinine repetition of “most.” And maybe someone doesn’t know that “styles” is plural.

I’d prefer that politicians spent all their time on the golf course, where they can do little harm, except to their egos.

Isabel Paterson, who had a lifetime of experience in journalism as both writer and proofreader, observed that “there is an irreducible minimum of pure error in all human affairs.” Good people, famous people, might proofread a text and yet leave “some peculiarly glaring mistake, probably in the front-page headline.” Even Liberty has had some proofreading errors. But if my suspicions are correct, the U.S. News nonsense fits a pattern, not of inadvertent error, but of sheer and sometimes willful ignorance. Nowadays, one isn’t surprised to find errors in a most fundamental sense in every morning’s news reports.

Here’s the Daily Mail (April 9),captioning a picture of President Trump going out to golf for the 16th time since assuming office:

Trump (pictured Sunday leaving Mar-a-Lago) is far outpacing his predecessor, who he repeatedly criticized for hitting the links.

It’s an apt critique of the president — although I’d prefer that politicians spent all their time on the golf course, where they can do little harm, except to their egos. But “who he repeatedly criticized”? Haven’t they ever heard of “whom”? As I write, the mistake has not been corrected; and when the article appeared on the conservative blog Lucianne.com, the headline reproduced the error in the caption:

Trump makes his 16th trip to a golf course since inauguration — far outpacing Obama, who he repeatedly criticized for hitting the links.

How many times during the past week have you read something like the following in a supposedly high-class journal?

The injured woman laid on the sidewalk.

Police drug the suspect out of his car.

The majority leader snuck an extra $100 million into the budget.

I just googled snuck, and in a third of a second got 13,100,000 results. Not all of them, I am sure, are reproductions of an illiterate rural dialect.

It’s disturbing to discover how few people who live by talking and writing understand common English verbs. This demonstrates (A) a collapse of the educational system, (B) a lack of interest in reading real literature, (C) a lack of sensitivity or curiosity about words, or (D) all of the above. Whatever the cause, it’s horrifying.

Tucker Carlson, the libertarian-conservative television personality, is a favorite of mine. I don’t enjoy criticizing him. But here goes. Carlson comes from a wealthy family. He attended La Jolla Country Day School and St. George’s School. He has a long career as a journal writer and editor. He has written a book. It is this Tucker Carlson who, on his April 4 program, discussing the word “monitoring,” which he used for government surveillance in general but his guest, Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman, refused to apply to the surveillance activities of Susan Rice, declaimed:

You see the Orwellian path we are trodding.

Trod on, Tucker. Maybe you’ll eventually trod up against a grammar book.

Ignorance of grammar . . . shall we become still more fundamental and consider ignorance of meaning? On April 10, a man named Cedric Anderson went into a classroom in San Bernardino, California, and killed his wife, a teacher in the school, a child she was teaching, and himself. The next day, the Los Angeles Times ran a story with this headline: “He was a pastor and a gentleman: ‘She thought she had a wonderful husband.’” The idea that Anderson was “a pastor” gives that extra little tingly irony to the story, doesn’t it? It’s a word the Times sought, grabbed, and flaunted — a mighty important word for the Times. But you cannot be a shepherd if you do not have a flock; you cannot be a pastor if you do not have a congregation. Reading through the article, one finds that this basic meaning of the word was totally lost on the LA Times, which was well satisfied with the following evidence of Anderson’s occupation:

Najee Ali, a community activist in Los Angeles and executive director of Project Islamic Hope, said he knew Anderson as a pastor who attended community meetings.

"He was a deeply religious man,” Ali said of Anderson, who sometimes preached on the radio and joined community events. “There was never any signs of this kind of violence . . . [O]n his Facebook he even criticized a man for attacking a woman."

On April 12, our friend the Daily Mail published a more accurate description of Anderson, calling him “a maintenance technician and self-described pastor.” But no one seemed interested in finding out whether Anderson was currently employed (which he seemingly was not) or in saying what a “maintenance technician” might be. The “pastor” identification continued to appear in other “news” venues — until journalistic interest in the story died without repentance, a couple of days later.

It’s disturbing to discover how few people who live by talking and writing understand common English verbs.

Let’s proceed from ignorance of meanings to the corruption of them.Last month’s Word Watch delivered a sharp rebuke to CBS radio news for its childishly politicized language. I could have said more about that, so I will right now.

Here on the cutting-room floor is an item that I might have mentioned last month, but didn’t. On March 3, CBS radio ran a story about Vice President Pence, who was criticizing Hillary Clinton’s use of email. Maybe the good people at CBS thought what you or I would have thought: “Oh great — we have to report on a dull speaker saying obvious things about a familiar subject.” But the report they produced was dull in another way — dull as in dim-witted, stupid, just plain dumb. CBS blandly announced that in making his comments, the sleep-inducing Mr. Pence had been “almost rabid.”

Of course, that’s an overt politicization of the news, but why is it dumb? It’s dumb because the statement itself is rabid, and therefore self-defeating. It’s dumb because the writers obviously didn’t realize that. And it’s dumb because of the pretense at delicate qualification that’s supposed to keep listeners from realizing that they’re listening to propaganda: “We didn’t say that Pence was rabid. We said he was almost rabid. We’re doing the best we can to be fair to this fascist.”

This is the network whose clinically objective way of identifying Supreme Court nominee Gorsuch was to call him “conservative ideologue Neil Gorsuch.” Not an opinion, mind you; just a fact: he’s an ideologue by profession, a card-carrying member of the Association of American Ideologues. But please let me know when you hear CBS referring to liberal ideologue Charles Schumer or liberal ideologue Elizabeth Warren — or liberal ideologue Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

It’s dumb because the statement itself is rabid, and therefore self-defeating.

A more interesting example of dumb people trying to do your thinking for you occurred on March 26. It was also on CBS radio news, but unfortunately it could have happened on any of the other networks, TV or radio. On that day I tuned in to hear that police were still assessing, or some verb like that, “the latest incident of gun violence.” So I started assessing, or some verb like that, this latest incident.

What had happened was that, 15 hours before, there had been a fight in a bar in Cincinnati, and shots had been fired. One person had been killed, and more than a dozen injured. This was a terrible, but hardly an unprecedented, event. It’s not clear that it was a big enough story to run in a national broadcast containing only about three minutes of news, but if you wanted to run it as a major news story, how would you package it? What category would you put it in?

I can say, without fear of sensible contradiction, that in the history of normal, quasi-objective news reporting, two categories would have occurred to almost everyone: shooting and bar fight. But those were not the categories that occurred to CBS. To the network’s news providers, this was violence, and it was gun violence, and it was the latest instance or example of the same.

Let’s take the last category first: latest. During the 15 hours between the shooting and the news report, how many fatal shootings do you suppose had happened? In 2016, there are said to have been 2,668 “murders by gun” in the United States. I assume that such murders are more numerous on weekends, but supposing that they happen at a uniform rate, this means that during those 15 hours there should have been fiveof them. If, however, we are looking at gun violence, or as normal people call it, shootings, we find that in 2016 there were 3,550 incidents in Chicago alone (up from 2,426 during the previous year). Other things being equal, there would have been six of these shootings in Chicago during the 15 hours.

This was a terrible, but hardly an unprecedented, event. It’s not clear that it was a big enough story to run in a national broadcast.

So the category of the latest is bogus. But what does it mean to be looking for the latestincident of something? Commonly, it means that you have an argument to make, and you’re seeking fresh examples or instances that you can use as evidence for your argument. Otherwise, the latest, the very latest, only the latest, etc., wouldn’t mean much. So CBS wanted to offer more than news; it wanted to push an argument.

It’s the perennial argument of all the established news providers. It isn’t that there are a lot of people who are on the losing side of violence, or that violence is increasing in certain parts of America, or that violent crime is a scandal, or that the trillion-dollar programs of our welfare state, which are meant to minimize crime by reducing poverty (because we all know that crime comes from poverty, and poverty is cured by welfare), are not working. No. The argument is simpler. It is simply that guns are bad.

Turn we now to the categories of violence and gun violence. A ride through any neighborhood populated by modern-liberal professionals, the men and women who populate what is jokingly known as America’s news organizations, will show you what they value and what they don’t. Valued: 6,000-square-foot private homes, organic food, nonthreatening gyms, skin care, expensive restaurants, wine tasting rooms, Nordstrom-class shopping centers, complex landscaping (and thus, illegal immigrants), household alarm systems, gated communities, on-street surveillance cams. Not valued: filling stations, churches, massage parlors, check-cashing emporia, rental units, fast food, homes of illegal immigrants, Walmart, trucks parked on the street, bus stops, strip malls, bars. In the precincts set aside by the professional classes for the worship of themselves, there is no occasion for violence or gun violence. No fights, even fistfights, ever take place. And nobody ever goes to a gun convention.

For these denizens of Valhalla, violence is an exotic word, and a thought-paralyzing concept. Having no relatives, friends, or acquaintances who commit violence, they regard it with a superstitious terror, like a creature from another world. No, not like such a creature, but literally that creature. Their own forms of misconduct are quiet, genteel, non-disruptive — false statements to clients, false statements to the public, false declarations on financial forms, extortionate lawsuits, bribery of public officials (in marginally legal ways), the occasional in-doors sex offense . . . the honesty of violence is missing.

A ride through any neighborhood populated by modern-liberal professionals will show you what they value and what they don’t.

They therefore do not understand how violence could happen. It could not be rooted in human nature. After all, they themselves are human, and they don’t commit violence. Neither could it be the outlet for aggressions that they also feel, but are afraid to act on. And surely it could not result from barbaric ways of life made more barbaric by elitist efforts to reform them — the kind of efforts for which the professional classes always self-righteously vote. It can only be explained as the product, not of human beings, but of things. The things are guns. Hence the category of gun violence.

The phrase is brutally unidiomatic. Was Lizzie Borden accused of committing hatchet violence? Did Jack the Ripper practice knife violence? Did Hitler invade his neighbors with tank violence? But now we have gun violence, and the distance of this phrase from ordinary speech should alert us to both a certainty and a prima facie probability.

The certainty is that it’s a carefully made-up term. There was no necessity for it; words already existed to cover all its applications, and cover them specifically — such words as the aforementioned shooting and bar fight, but alsoshooting spree, gang war, hold up, crime of passion, and so on. When you make up a vague, new, general term to replace established and specific ones, why are you doing it? Because the existing terms don’t serve your argument. Thus, global warming (once global cooling), which was specific enough to be refuted, yielded to climate change, which means anything you want it to mean, but still suggests that something needs to be fixed — by the people who invented the term.

Was Lizzie Borden accused of committing hatchet violence? Did Hitler invade his neighbors with tank violence?

What is gun violence? It may not be a homicide; it may not be an actual shooting; it may be threatening someone with a gun; it may mean using a gun to kill yourself. Yes, a suicide may also be a shooting, although that isn’t what the nation is supposed to get upset about; the professional classes insist on their right to kill themselves in any way they choose. But they will insert suicides into the statistics about gun violence anyhow, because that’s the purpose of gun violence: itlumps everything together — a bank holdup, a Mafia intimidation, a hunting accident, a crazy creep who kills a cop, a crazy cop who kills a creep, and Frankie of “Frankie and Johnny”:

She didn’t shoot him in the bedroom,
She didn’t shoot him in the bath,
She didn’t shoot him in the parlor;
She shot him in the ass.

So much for the certainty: gun violence was invented to push an agenda. Now for the prima facie probability, which has to do with the nature of that agenda: gun violence was invented, and is used, as a two-word argument for getting rid of all guns. Of course, I should have written “a two-word non-argument,” because you can’t win an argument by shifting terms around. You can’t win such an argument with intelligent people, anyway.

Now we return to my constant theme: these people bellied up to the conference table, talking about how primitive and dumb the rest of the country is — who are the dummies, after all?




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Comments

Geezer

Since this is a Word Watch, I think the pronoun we is a word worth watching.

I especially like to watch it when there is no clear antecedent or other definition. An example of such a use is provided in one of the comments:

But just as we forbid citizens to possess machine guns, we have a right to impose reasonable restrictions on other types of firearms, in line with recent Supreme Court decisions.

Who are we? I'm a citizen, and I'm not about to forbid myself to possess any kind of weapon. Does we mean The Government? Or do it include us lowly Commoners? (The commenter's brother calls us "the average citizen".)

Scott Robinson

Dear Stephen,

Another example of either the media's proofreading incompetence or their desire to prove that the public consuming their product is stupid was the recent news coverage of the confirmation of Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch. The overwhelming majority of the news coverage was about the Senate going "nuclear" (another scaremonger word) to nominate Gorsuch. Almost always they talked about it requiring 60% of the vote to confirm a nominee. Once or twice, I heard about how Clarence Thomas won nomination by a vote of 52-48. So we were already nuclear when we confirmed the "Oreo"? (I put that derogatory term in quotes, because I am quoting what many of the Democratic party opponents of Justice Thomas had to say about him, but was NEVER described by the mainstream media.)

Getting back to the news coverage of the Neil Gorsuch nomination, after all of the coverage about the Senate going nuclear and not needing 60% of the vote, Gorsuch got the final vote of 56-42. Never mentioned in the media was the fact that Gorsuch received more of the Yea votes than the current Judge Thomas. This is kind of like the "...most moved by what he sees and hears in a most fundamental sense", if the media says there is a problem, there must be a problem. Maybe by proofreading them, you are guilty of blasphemy.

Best Wishes,
Scott

Andy Hanlen

Stephen, I would be interested in your take on what I call "word abuse," although I'm not sure that's the right term for it. Specifically, I am bothered by the use of the term "climate change." Any dictionary will show what those words mean, yet (intentionally, I'm sure) they have come to mean something entirely different.

I see in print and on TV, and hear on the radio (NPR is a serial offender) people accused of not believing in climate change, as though that were possible. (Well, I suppose it might be for infants and the lobotomized.) I also see "climate change deniers" in frequent use, a particularly insidious characterization, in my opinion. Nobody questions this horror, however, and when I do? I'm sure you can imagine the responses I get.

Is there no remedy? Anyway, thanks for indulging my rant. No one else will.

Greg Woods

The term "deniers" was definitely invented with a purpose, to link people who are skeptical about the "climate change" agenda with holocaust deniers. This is known as demonizing one's opponents, something which is common in political debates, not scientific ones. This alone says a lot.

Jon Harrison

Just about everybody, including Merriam-Webster, recognizes "snuck" as an acceptable variant of "sneaked." Languages evolve and English is no exception.

I've heard the term "professional class" of course, referring to a class made up of people who work in the professions (together with their families), but are there professional classes? Surely doctors and lawyers are both members of the same "professional class"? A class, as used here, refers to a social/economic/cultural grouping, yes? There isn't a professional class composed solely of accountants, or professors, is there?

Whether use of the term gun violence is in fact code for advocating the abolition of guns is possible, but I'm not sure we have any definitive evidence on that. Actually, not many people want to abolish the right to possess firearms (though there are indeed a few who advocate this). Most people favor regulation of firearms in some form or another. Example: one of my brothers, a retired combat soldier with 27 years' service (and a gun owner) sees no reason why the average citizen should possess an AR-15 or similar assault-type weapon.

There is no police force in my village. Almost everyone has at least one handgun in the house, and in addition shotguns and deer rifles are possessed by many. Only the tiniest minority of Americans wants to take these types of guns out of our hands, and they have absolutely no chance of achieving that goal.

Guns are not bad. God forbid that we ever reach a time when only the state possesses arms, and the citizenry is completely at its mercy. But just as we forbid citizens to possess machine guns, we have a right to impose reasonable restrictions on other types of firearms, in line with recent Supreme Court decisions. Had the Newtown shooter possessed only a handgun or hunting rifle, some of the slaughter at the elementary school there might have been avoided.

Speaking of Newtown, check the demographics and household income for the town, and you'll see that extreme gun violence does occasionally strike the effete suburbanites you castigate in this essay. Any suburban parent will naturally fear the possibility of a similar mass shooting occurring in their town.

Regarding "climate change," like you I'm not a scientist, so my opinion on the subject is of questionable value. However, from what I can gather, the conclusion of a fairly overwhelming majority of scientists qualified in this area is that the earth is indeed warming, and that effects such as sea level rise, acidification in the oceans, and changing weather patterns (affecting agriculture) do pose a threat to the future of our civilization.

I happen to think that even if they're right, nothing can (or rather, will) be done about it, and that we must simply await events. But my question for you is: are the scientists qualified to judge this matter overwhelming "liberal," or "anti-technology," or "anti-growth" — are they, in other words, just leftist treehuggers in lab coats? If so, what accounts for that, from a sociological point of view? Why would climatology and related disciplines overwhelmingly attract leftists willing to abandon both scientific rigor and reputation in the name of advancing an agenda?

If they are not simply ideologues walking in lockstep, but are providing us with their best judgment from a scientific point of view, then who are we to dismiss their arguments?

Fred Mora

Jon asks: Why would climatology and related disciplines overwhelmingly attract leftists willing to abandon both scientific rigor and reputation in the name of advancing an agenda?

What other discipline is there that allows you to drape yourself in the coat of science and yet advocate for the state total control of economy? Today's climatologists are yesterday's Marxism-Leninism Ph.D.s. They are not interested in science. They are interested in state control of every single human activity, ever boiler fire, every workplace, every household, under the guise of controlling energy use.

There are serious climatologists. They have been hunted down and prevented from presenting papers, attending conferences, and sometimes even holding their job. The Germans called this Berufsverbot.

Trying to work in climatology today is like trying to work in genetics in USSR during the Lysenko years. That was settled science, too, remember?

Does it make sense now, Jon?

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