January 16, 2005

Was it Frazier or the copy editor?

Roger Shuy, the distinguished sociolinguist, writes me to say that he knew Ian Frazier slightly at one time, and doubts that he would use a nominative-case pronoun as complement of than, as in the passage I noted in a recent post:

Your recent piece on Ian Frazier's usage causes me to try to defend him, albeit a bit weakly. Ian lived here in Missoula for a few years while he did his research on his book, The Rez — about Indian reservation life (perhaps one of the few natural resources still remaining in this state). His kids went to the same elementary school that my daughter attended and I saw him many times. He even came to her class one time and gave a talk about Russia, which he appeared to know something about. But I digress. What I really wanted to tell you is that he is a very common man. He wears jeans and a baseball cap (even indoors) on all occasions (at least in Montana--who knows what he wears now that he's moved to New York City). He speaks in a natural conversational style — no high falutin' words. My guess is that it was his New Yorker editor who changed his them to they. Ian wouldn't be that uppity.

This is interesting, because it suggests another case where a copy editor should have been jailed or at the very least rebuked for time-wasting garbage and told to put things back the way they were. Was it Ian Frazier who chose the case on that pronoun? Or was it some meddling copy editor in the offices of The New Yorker? I would really love to know. Can anyone put Ian Frazier in touch with me so I can ask him? It is a matter of some interest. Remember, internal evidence (the informal you in the same sentence, and the homely nature of the first-person coming-of-age memoir) argues that the nominative pronoun was totally out of keeping with the style of the surrounding piece.

It would be very interesting to discover whether a copy editor changed the case on that pronoun. You see, copy editors often miss the things they really should be catching to earn their pay — wrong page references, name inconsistencies, misspellings, punctuation slips, that sort of thing. There they could be useful, but they often let us authors down. They're too busy messing with our grammar.

Take a look at the new issue of The New Yorker (January 17, 2005), on page 62, second column, bottom sentence:

It is also odd that other produce bags at the store had a red line across the top but the one with Soto-Fong's prints, did not.

See the error? That's a comma between subject and predicate. There's absolutely no excuse for it. It is a straightforward flat-out error in modern written English. The copy editor should have caught it. They miss things like this, and spend their time changing the syntax of perfectly serviceable Standard English into some fancy-schmancy puristic alternative version against the author's better judgment. I'd love to know whether that's what happened with Frazier's piece. So please put him in touch with me, somebody. You email to pullum; the site is ucsc (the University of California, Santa Cruz). and the domain is .edu. Tell Frazier there is no one I would rather find had emailed me than he.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 16, 2005 07:39 PM