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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

COMMENT: Oh, What a Difference Grammar Makes




When told that Washington Post readers regularly complain about lapses in grammar that leap out at them from the pages of The Washington Post nearly every day, Mary Newton Bruder, reader and self-proclaimed "Grammar Lady," replied: "I'm pleased to hear that." Not that errors are made, mind you. She's pleased that readers still care enough to complain. "It's important to notice," she said.


Readers often point to embarrassing gaffes such as confusing the words "lie'' and "lay," "affect" and "effect," the contraction "it's" and the possessive "its," "who" and "whom." Then there are the sins of dangling participles, split infinitives, politically correct but grammatically wrong pronouns and disagreement between subjects and verbs. Bruder finds that these mistakes are becoming more universal. Since launching a hot line to answer callers' usage queries, she's discovered that issues she initially thought were specific to the Pittsburgh area, where she lives, were being raised throughout the United States and Canada. She receives about 80 grammar questions a day via her website (www.grammar lady.com) and through her toll-free phone line (1-800-279-9708).


Bruder is, like many readers who contact the ombudsman about grammatical errors, a retired English teacher. I also hear from retired copy editors who are convinced that the current generation of copy editors can't hold a candle to them. Readers often ask: "Is anybody editing the paper anymore?" or "What happened to old-fashioned proofreading?" After pointing out several grammatical errors in a sports column, one reader said: "Although I get the gist of the column, the butchering of words and phrases takes away from the enjoyment of reading it."


The fault lies not just with harried reporters and even more harried copy editors juggling more copy and other technical duties. Bruder says that an entire generation has been handicapped by the failure of public schools to hammer home the rules of grammar, the parts of speech, the conjugation of verbs. She traces this to the 1970s, when such pedagogy was deemed irrelevant; teachers feared damaging students' self-esteem by pointing out their errors.


That, she says, is beginning to change as schools reintroduce grammar into the curriculum. The most effective way to do so, she says, is to "make it fun." That's part of her crusade, too.


The Washington Post doesn't have grammar police per se, but it does have plenty of staff members who are as concerned about the proper use of language as readers are. Of course, there are others for whom rules are made to be broken if they stand in the way of "good writing." Their inattention to detail is deliberate.


Speaking of inattention to detail, one might ask: How many corrections does it take to get one fact right? What was meant to be a simple item in the June 1 District Politics column has turned into something of a fiasco, raising the ire of some readers who wonder just how much The Washington Post cares about accuracy.


The item mentioned that, at a recent White House state dinner, District of Columbia Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis sat next to the musician Stevie Wonder, who, it turns out, once wrote a song that mentioned her father, the late Dr. Charles Drew. The item ended by noting that Drew, a black man who developed the blood-bank system, died after a car crash in 1950 when he was denied treatment at an all-white hospital in North Carolina. Interesting story, often repeated, but untrue. On June 8, the correction of that error got Dr. Drew's name wrong. On June 15, the correction of the correction also mangled his name. Instead of Charles Drew, he'd become Charles Drew Jarvis.


Inattention to detail, indeed!


E.R. Shipp writes for The Washington Post, where this comment originally appeared.