Partly cloudy, chance of error

After reading about “lake-efect” snow on yesterday’s Chicago Tribune weather page, it seemed like a good idea to check that page today.

One of today’s headlines reads, “Water vapor in clouds hold onto and re-radiates heat.” This error are especially puzzling, since the correct usage appear not only in the same headline, but in the one just above it: “Layer of clouds prevents heat from escaping.”

Maybe the headline writer hadn’t meant to drop the required “s” from “hold,” but a copy editor should have caught and corrected that before publication.

Time was when every newspaper reporter, copy editor and editor had a well-worn edition of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” on their desks. Those who do can look under “Subject-Verb Agreement” for advice on when to use singular or plural forms of verbs.

Why, you might wonder, would anyone but a nitpicky English teacher care about this?  Because, as the author of “1984” and “Animal Farm” wrote, “If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.”

This doesn’t mean you have to write as well as George Orwell to have a coherent thought. But competent use of basic grammar in one’s native language doesn’t seem too much to ask of anyone with at least an eighth-grade education, much less of professional wordsmiths.

Newspapers used to be regarded as bastions of proper English, one of the few places a person could reliably expect to see it used correctly. After all, their avowed goal was to provide an essential element of successful democracy – a well-informed public of people able to think for themselves.

Looks like those days is over.

And by the way, what is one to think about “Percent of possible sunshine in recent days,” which then informs us that there was zero sunshine on the three previous days? Wouldn’t the word “possible” be better used to predict the percent of sunshine in coming days, where the element of uncertainty justifies use of the word? Is it possible that there’s some uncertainty here about an easily measured and verifiable quality of weather during the three previous days?

Better add a dictionary to the desk, also.

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