Reportage

Steve Kleinedler (of the American Heritage Dictionary) has pointed me to a story in the Chicago Tribune today in which he’s interviewed by reporter Heidi Stevens about on-line mistakes and peeves about them:

Nitpicking grammar in the digital age

With more and more communication happening digitally, is it time to stop the grammar gripes?

Steve’s first appearance:

“It’s almost impossible to speak for 30 minutes and not make a speech error,” says Steve Kleinedler, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary. “As someone who has had his grammar picked apart based on radio interviews, it’s sort of scary.”

(Kleinedler once had the audacity to say, during an NPR interview about the American Heritage Usage Panel, “Every year, we send out the panel a ballot full of questions asking their opinions.” This earned the scorn of one Arnold Zwicky, blogger, who took issue with “send” being followed by “out.” Apparently this is a dative alternation. Or something.)

“No one can stand up to that scrutiny,” Kleinedler contends. We agree.

Wow. I’m the bad guy, the nasty nitpicking blogger.

What Steve was trying to convey (as he’s explained to me in e-mail) is that absolutely anything can be caught when you’re being recorded. He thought this was a cute story illustrating that point. (He’s blameless in all of this.)

But the reporter wasn’t trying to discover what was going on in grammatical discussions on-line. She had a predetermined point to make — that people are nitpicking mercilessly and unreasonably about grammar on-line — and was only looking for anecdotes to illustrate that point. She wasn’t in fact listening to Steve, and I very much doubt that she even looked at the piece he was referring to; all she wanted was story fodder.

[Being interviewed by reporters is a tricky business. When I think they’re trying to figure things out, and when I feel that they’re willing to be challenged about their preconceptions, I’m happy to talk. When I see their agenda and agree with the thrust of their ideas, I’m willing to feed them material. Otherwise, I’m uncooperative, because anything I say is likely to be twisted in ways unacceptable to me.

(I am at the moment anxiously awaiting the results of two interviews I’ve granted recently: one on the word faggot for Slate, one on pornstar names for Salon. Maybe the reporters were so flummoxed by what I said that they just gave up.)]

The Tribune reporter slants her story to advance her thesis; I have to be made into one of those nasty nitpicking bloggers. I am referred to as “one Arnold Zwicky”, that is, “someone named Arnold Zwicky”, said sneeringly. And I’m identified merely as “a blogger”, with no account taken of my expertise or the aims of my blog. (Compare “One Heidi Stevens, a writer, has characterized me in print as …”)

And then this Heidi Stevens person talks about my “scorn”, says I “took issue with ‘send’ being followed by ‘out’ “, and mocks the technical term “dative alternation”. Idiot.

This is what I said at the beginning of “NP dative on the edge” (on this very blog):

This [“Every year, we send out the panel a ballot full of questions asking their opinions’] is at the very edge of grammaticality for me (and many others), though there are some who find such examples acceptable, and they occur with modest frequency.

This is scorn? I could show you scorn, and it would be ugly. Could I have been more gentle? (Hard to imagine.) And was I putting Steve down for what he said? (Of course not.)

Now, I long ago gave up the idea that most reporters would check sources, so I don’t expect that this person would have. (Though I used to be a reporter, and I like to think that I did better than this. And I’ve been interviewed, and quoted, by reporters who certainly did better.)

Of course, I never “took issue with ‘send’ being followed by ‘out’ “, and Steve never said such a thing to the reporter. Check out my posting; send out to the panel a ballot full of questions asking their opinions isn’t problematic — and send out for pizza and similar examples are so ordinary that I didn’t bother to mention them.

The problem here is that it takes some technical apparatus to characterize the phenomenon at issue. Ordinary English just won’t do, which is why I went into the technical stuff in my “NP dative on the edge” posting, trying to lead readers into the thickets.

Maybe it was a mistake for Steve to mention some of the technical stuff to the reporter; it’s subtle stuff. All it seems to have done is evoke mockery at terminology. But then she was bent on dissing me, as an example of a Bad Blogger, anyway, so she would probably have twisted anything he said to her ends.

Don’t think I’ll be answering phone calls from the Chicago Tribune.

[A practical, real-world matter: I don’t get paid for any of my work these days, so if I simply refused to deal with journalists completely, it would make no difference in my life; when I do deal with them, I see that as a matter of informing the public, for the sake of the ideas. (Ok, I do get a kick out of seeing my name in print. I’m not immune to vanity. And some of these people are a lot of fun to talk to.) But lots of my friends and colleagues have occupations in which the publicity from interviews, public appearances, and the like makes a real difference to their careers or to the institutions or organizations they represent. In particular, these things sell books — in Steve Kleinedler’s case, dictionaries. Not everyone can afford the luxury of not dealing with annoyances like that Tribune reporter.]

4 Responses to “Reportage”

  1. Steve K. Says:

    I must take some blame for the miscommunication with Heidi, who is as nice a reporter as Arnold is a linguist*. This anecdote was in a follow-up email to a longer email, so I didn’t explain the circumstances in full detail. I should have explained the situation more fully.

    In pointing out how people can make observations in one’s speech when one isn’t expecting it, I didn’t convey the fact that Arnold was making a valid linguistic observation, and I apologize to both Arnold and Heidi for creating an awkward situation.

    *On second reading, I see how this could be taken as back-handed compliment to one or the other of the referents. I assure you, I mean it in a most sincere way; I have always enjoyed my interactions with both of them!

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    In case regular readers missed this point, Language Log and this blog have hundreds of postings scorning people who peeve about things they view as mistakes. Some are things that were never errors, some are innovations that became standard long ago, and some are widespread non-standardisms that are scarcely worth trying to put down with napalm.

    The irony here is that most linguists, me included, would passionately agree with the reporter’s annoyance at most on-line peeves about usage.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Evan Morris on Google+:

    Many years ago I got so flustered in a radio interview that I said someone “stealed” something. My wife still brings it up about once a month.

    (Morris by the way, maintains The Word Detective site (here) — from which selections have been published as the book The Word Detective: Solving the Mysteries Behind Those Pesky Words and Phrases (2001). And then there’s From Altoids to Zima: The Surprising Stories Behind 125 Famous Brand Names (2004).)

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