Sunday, October 07, 2007

Whence the error?

Keep your eye on the Times's corrections column over the next couple days. A couple of things in today's edn look as if they could be blamed on the desk. Not blown saves, like the palette/palate blunder in the excruciating beer feature on the N&O front or the flaunt/flout error in the Freep, but out-and-out, scalpel-in-the-patient, desk-induced errors. Hope not, but we'll see.

Why do the two in the Times look like desk errors, while the others don't? Because they don't fit a pattern. The Freep slip -- "It's wrong," he said. And he may flaunt the new rules -- is common in speech and writing, and like many papers, the Freep's undergunned and underedited these days. The N&O piece too gets a familiar pair backward, and it also gives off signs of being overwritten:

As he kicked back a glass of Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale, he added with a smile, "I will not be pacing myself."

Not quite. "Kick back," transitive, is something usually done with money. "Kick back," intransitive, was immortalized by Willie Nelson in "The Electric Horseman," with a general sense of relaxation (oh, look it up). Our writer is probably looking for "knocked back," which the OED traces back more than seven decades with the meaning of "to drink (esp. intoxicants) or eat heartily or heavily; to swallow a drink at a gulp." Judging from the article as a whole, though, the writer seems likely to be the sort whose response to usage questions is "Thanks, let's keep it the way it is."

Sorry! [/tripdownmemorylane] Anyway, the thing about the two examples in the Times is that unlike these, they don't sound like the sorts of things writers -- good ones, bad ones, overworked ones, overpraised ones -- produce on their own. As in:

The White House of the 1860s bore little resemblance to the modern institution; Lincoln had two important staffers and a cabinet filled with contentious personalities, several of whom considered themselves superior to the president.

Something's missing. The point of the clause can't how many important staffers Lincoln had, because all chief executives have important staffers. Given the immediately preceding "some of the best American presidents encouraged robust debate," the point has to be not their numbers but -- given their near-equal importance -- their level of disagreement. You have to wonder if that was in a clause that got snicked off as so many "needless words."

Same piece, third leg, first graf:

“It deteriorated in Reagan’s second term,” said John J. Pitney Jr., who served as a policy adviser and is now a professor at Claremont McKenna College. “You ran and leaked to conservative columnist Bob Novak before others ran to him and leaked on you.”

I know the AP writes like that, but do people really talk like that? "Hey, Martha, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is in town tonight!" "Wow, I wonder what she'll say about Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's tarnished electoral victory?"

I'd hypothesize a confusion in style norms. Week-in-Review piece is submitted with (parenthetical) clarification reminding us who (columnist Bob) Novak is. Editor, aghast at violation of desk norms, takes out parens. In the confusion, cunning appositive escapes!

Make sense? Other hypotheses (or clarifications from agents connected to the Times) are welcome. But these just don't sound as if they came off a writer's bat that way.

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