Sunday, 13 May 2012

An open letter to the Globe and Mail

For almost a year now I’ve been amusing myself by writing a blog. It helps to pass the time and satisfies the inner need to be creative in some way. As a retired English teacher, and a former member of a raging grammarian group of like-minded curmudgeons, I decided to write a grammar blog. And what really prompted me, and provided most of the substance of my blog, was the growing number of errors that I was noticing in my favourite newspaper, the Globe and Mail. One in particular incurred my wrath, and threatened an apoplectic fit, but I’ll come to that later.

I realize that some people would call me old-fashioned. I have to admit that language evolves and that many of the neologisms that I abhor have found their way into the dictionary. I still say “sneaked” instead of “snuck” or “dived” instead of  “dove”. I can’t bring myself to “access” my bank account. Nor would I ever have a “fun” time. I admit that I’m probably picky, and many of my bêtes noirs have now become common currency.

So I just have to get over it when the Globe uses “forecasted” instead of “forecast”, or “fortuitous” instead of “fortunate” or “disinterested” instead of  “uninterested”, or “fulsome” instead of “full”, or “comprises” instead of “constitutes”, or “enormity” instead of “enormousness”. When enough people use a word incorrectly, it eventually becomes correct.

However, many of the changes in usage I observe in the Globe have not yet become acceptable, even if they are current among the young. Just recently, in the Travel section I read:

For people bored of playing war on their video-game systems, the "Seal Team Six" package comes with a semi-automatic rifle so advanced that it can only be named with a series of letters and numbers - the MR556A1.... (Globe, 13 March, 2012)

True, there is no rhyme or reason behind which preposition goes after a particular verb. Thus one may be "tired of", "exhausted from", "fed up with", addicted to", "intrigued by" playing video games. But most people would be bored with it.

Indeed, many of the errors that I notice have not yet become acceptable in standard English, and should not be found in a newspaper that used to take pride in modelling correct usage, and still follows, I believe, its own stylebook, which would decry the errors it makes.

For example, the Globe and Mail stylebook would explain the distinction in Canadian English between “licence” (the noun) and “license” (the verb). In the example below, the writer has probably let his better judgement be overruled by the American spell-check on the computer.

Unlike health cards, which usually aren't sent out for a few weeks after a replacement request has been fulfilled, a temporary driver's license can be issued after the forms have been processed (Globe, 23 August, 2011).

A glance at his own driver’s licence would have confirmed the correct spelling.

Similarly the Globe seems to have a problem with “prophecy” and “prophesy”, another pair of verbs where the noun is spelled with a “c” and the verb with an “s”. In a review of a modern derivative of the play Macbeth, we read that:

Bearing news of the witches' prophesies, [the letter] was somewhat carelessly left lying around.... (Globe, 11 September, 2011)

The reference should, of course, be to the witches' prophecies.

Even worse is the error in an article on the Paris Fashion Week.

"Everything is changing," prophesized the designer post show. (Globe, March 18, 2011)

The verb “prophesize” won’t be found in any dictionary.

Apostrophes pose a problem for some of the writers at the Globe.

Statistics Canada released it's annual survey of police-reported crime on Tuesday (Globe, 22 July 2011).

The writer probably knows the difference between "it's", the contraction of "it is", and "its", the possessive. The above error is a slip that would once have been picked up by a proofreader, but in the newspaper industry today, proofreaders have likely been replaced by Spell-check, which has its obvious failings. The same may be true of the following error:

Islamist group's such as the Muslim Brotherhood... argue that... only a parliament chosen by free election can set the terms for a constitution. (Globe, 29 July 2011)

As Pope said, "A little learning is a dangerous thing." Some people learned at school to put an apostrophe before the "s" and extended the rule to every "s" they wrote, including plurals and verbs. Although I haven’t seen it yet, the day may come when I read in the Globe that rock and roll rule’s.

Another common error in the Globe results from the confusion of the uses of  the preposition "like" and the conjunction "as". We often hear this error on sports programs as players make statements such as,

"Like I said, we have to give 110%." 

instead of 

"As I said, we have to give 110%."

But we shouldn't be seeing it in the Globe and Mail.  In an editorial on August 20, 2011, on the crackdown by the Syrian authorities on their people, we read:

Like in Egypt, they (the police) may soon tire of killing the innocent.

Now to the egregious error I have seen many times in the Globe. When it appears, I know that howls of horror are heard across the land. I refer to the writers’ ignorance of the distinction between the transitive verb “lay” and the intransitive verb “lie”. Here’s an example.

She (a tiger) was tranquillized, placed in a snare and forced to lay in wait as the famously tardy leader (Vladimir Putin) got to the site (Globe, 17 March, 2012).

In another example the writer makes two errors in the one sentence as he confuses “careen” and “career” as well as “lie” and “lay”.

Travelling at highway speeds in a wind-powered go-cart.... Who’s it for? Those who would rather careen down a sandy beach than lay on it. (Globe, 12 August, 2011)

As I’m sure many an English teacher has said, we lay our towel on a beach but we lie on the sand. And as Stephen Sondheim put it, you career from career to career, whereas Captain Cook careened his ship on the beach after striking the Great Barrier Reef.

And here is the example of the lie/lay error, which made me tear my hair, scream “What is happening at the Globe?” and post this essay to affirm that some readers still care. In the May 11 edition of  “A moment in time”, with reference to the death of Bob Marley, the writer begins, “

He got up, he stood up, and then he laid down.

Now that error is so bad, that I have to wonder, What is going on at the Globe? O the enormity of it! Do they not know, or do they not care?


  1. Both!

    Some of the things you've mentioned are genuine errors, and in those cases they just don't catch it. Lay and lie, genuine mistake, as with apostrophes.

    Some, however, probably are just "don't care". As you've noted, language changes, and all you accomplish by raging against it is to make the working writers shift a seat or two further away from you on the language bus. Practice/practise — not a useful distinction, and thus inevitably doomed.

    I think. Can't say for sure, because language doesn't always do what we expect.

    The tricky part is to know when the writer is using a modern, adaptive language style, and when he just doesn't know.

    As I said, in the Globe, it's probably both.

    And it's probably best not to tar them both with the same brush.

  2. And I have been thinking about it some more. I think the main thing is the Style Guide. If the Globe has a style guide, they should follow the damn thing.

    I can accept change in language, and have evolved from a prescriptivist into a descriptive permissivism that is pretty soft but not squishy. I say "evolved" not to imply superiority, but to suggest a gradual process.

    BUT I can't accept hypocrisy, especially in standards. If the Globe means to distinguish between practice and practise, then they should do so. If they intend to use only one, then they should say so.

    So on reflection... I'm with you.

    Or if you prefer, with thee.