Saturday, February 06, 2010

What rough beast?

Sometimes, even at the Paper o' Record, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest:

A report in The Caucus column on Friday about President Obama’s remarks to lawmakers and religious leaders at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday rendered incorrectly part of a quotation by Mr. Obama about the current political debate. In noting that “we become absorbed with our abstract arguments, our ideological disputes, our contests for power,” he went on to say, “And in this Tower of Babel, we lose the sound of God’s voice.” He did not say “this tower of babble.”

Were it up to me, the first part of the first sentence would read "A report in the Caucus column on Friday" or "A report in Friday's The Caucus column," sted as published. The article's modifying "column," not "Caucus."

That 38-word thicket of irrelevant detail is a lot to wade through to get to the point: A comment by the president at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday was rendered incorrectly. And given that the Times is rigid about noting when "an editing error" led to a correction, I wouldn't mind a little more frankness here: "A report in Friday's The Caucus column rendered a quotation from President Obama incorrectly because a biblical allusion went right over the reporter's head."

One reason I like the Grauniad is its ability to acknowledge its errors without the NYT's ponderous solemnity:

In an auction story, Giacometti's thin man makes fat price, the artist made additional appearances as Giacommeti and Giacommetti (4 February, page 5).

Or, more to the point:

Also swept into Homophone Corner was some confusion, in an article headed Stick another cowpat on the fire, between palettes and pallets: "I think that anyone trying to keep warm by burning wooden palettes (as used by artists) … would do far better by burning wooden pallets (as used in industry). They're much bigger and longer lasting," said Peter J Roberts from Bewdley in Worcestershire.

I'm not holding out hope for "The Lord went down unto the Washington burean Friday and there confounded their language. President Obama referred to 'this Tower of Babel,' not 'this tower of babble,' in his remarks to the National Prayer Breakfast." But it'd be nice.

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Blogger Wishydig said...

now i'm going to have 'the boxer' running thru my head all day. (actually, that's fine with me.)

3:33 PM, February 06, 2010  
Blogger John Cowan said...

Friday's The Caucus column, as published in New York's The Times?

I know The New York Times is fanatical about capitalizing its article, but really — in the English language, a noun phrase can begin with a possessive or an article, not both. If you must preserve the sacred The for some reason, insert a noun in apposition, as in "Keynes's book The Economic Consequences of the Peace", where leaving out The would miss a subtlety (all of the consequences, not just some) and leaving out book produces the same ungrammatical form as above.

In this case, there is no such subtlety, so "Friday's Caucus column" would be fine. Nobody will suppose that that's a column about a group of politicians who meet on Fridays.

4:14 PM, February 06, 2010  
Blogger fev said...

Did you like Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast"? I thought it was the cat's pajamas.

11:06 PM, February 06, 2010  
Blogger John Cowan said...

I see what you're doing there.

And it still sucks.

Hemingway's novel "A Moveable Feast", please.

6:26 PM, February 07, 2010  
Blogger Wishydig said...

tho i wasn't thinking about the structure in my comment, i guess i could have written it a few ways with the possessive:

-i'm going to have simon and garfunkel's 'the boxer' running thru my head.

-i'm going to have simon and garfunkel's 'boxer' running thru my head.

-i'm going to have simon and garfunkel's song, 'the boxer,' running thru my head.

according to you, john, the third is better than the first? (i think we can agree to throw out the 2nd, right?)

while the third is perfectly acceptable to my ear grammatically, it changes the meaning in an unnecessary, even undesirable, way. i'd say the same about "Hemingway's 'A Moveable Feast'" vs "Hemingway's novel 'A Moveable Feast.'"

when dealing with works with well known titles, including the medium changes some of the presuppositions.

7:05 PM, February 07, 2010  
Blogger fev said...

I was in the deli line at the grocery the other day when "America" came on the sound system. It took me four days to stop humming that one.

Wishydig, what's with the no updates? Are you dissertating or something?

8:42 PM, February 07, 2010  
Blogger John Cowan said...

Wishydig, I agree that "The Boxer" needs to keep its article, so #2 is out. But I really do find the possessive-plus-article in #1 very jarring. We wouldn't start a sentence with "In Friday's The New York Times story", any more than we would start it with "In a The New York Times story". We'd write something like "In Friday's New York Times story", or "In a Friday story in The New York Times". The fact that the article is inside a song or book title instead of the name of a newspaper doesn't really change things, at least for me.

I don't understand why you think inserting "novel" or "song" changes the presuppositions. If I hear of "A Moveable Feast", I assume it's the Hemingway short-story collection (I don't know what I was thinking there when I said "novel"). For the benefit of those who don't know it, adding "Hemingway's book" provides context without changing the reference.

In any case, there are plenty of titles where the article can be dropped freely. "Dante's Divine Comedy", for example, would be fine. No need to write "Dante's The Divine Comedy" (though its Italian name is La Divina Commedia) or even "Dante's epic poem The Divine Comedy". (In real life, if you haven't heard of the Divine Comedy, you haven't heard of Dante either, so just "the Divine Comedy" would also be fine; it's not like there are Divine Comedies all over the place written by various authors.)

(Oh, and "the cat's pajamas" isn't relevant here, because "cat's" isn't trying to occupy the same syntactic slot as "the". "Cat's the pajamas", on the other hand, would be ungrammatical for the same reason as the examples above.)

11:12 AM, February 09, 2010  
Blogger Wishydig said...

the prospectus is weighing heavily on me. but thanks for noticing the silence! i do mean to get back to it.

John, i absolutely agree that there are articles that can be dropped, and should be dropped regardless of official titles in some cases.

but there are some, as in "the boxer" that are so frozen to the title that they do, to my ear, lose grammatical function. the articles in "a movable feast" and "the boxer" are like that for me. it'd be the same if i was talking about my "The The" album collection.

the grammatical function can be somewhat locked into the title keeping it from clashing with a possessive.

a google search for the two intact strings:
"simon and garfunkel's the boxer"
"simon and garfunkel's song, the boxer"

brings up significantly more hits for the former. that supports my argument that at least to many native speakers, the articles in some names/titles can be cemented and will lose their grammatical function.

about the semantics: the extensions are of course the same, but excluding the genre assumes that it's already known. including it doesn't assume the same. it's the difference between "gertrude will be joining us" and "my wife, gertrude, will be joining us."

i won't stick with calling that a presupposition, but there are definitely pragmatic distinctions.

6:20 PM, February 14, 2010  

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