Still no subject postposing at The New Yorker

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The Economist's article on the Cumbrian shooting rampage opens with this nicely styled and balanced sentence:

"It's like watching something from America," said one resident of Whitehaven, a gentle Georgian town on the north-western English coast. [The Economist 5 June 2010 p.33]

The subject of said has been postposed. This improves intelligibility because the subject is rather long (it has an attached supplement, the noun phrase a gentle Georgian town on the north-western English coast).

Now compare the following glaringly inept piece of style from a recent issue of The New Yorker:

"Galleries and magazines send him things, and he doesn't even open them," Zhao Zhao, a younger artist who works as one of Ai's assistants, said. [The New Yorker 24 May 2010 p.56]

Grossly and unnecessarily clumsy, and hard to process. What on earth is wrong with them?

Let me make it clear that I am not saying their sentence is ungrammatical. I am saying that it is an example of very poorly chosen style with respect to constituent order. And it appears that it does not represent an isolated slip. As Chris Potts noted on Language Log way back in 2003 ("A ban on quotative inversion?"), The New Yorker apparently has a house-style prohibition on (if I may use the technical terms employed in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) subject postposing in a parenthetical report frame for directly reported speech, even when the quoted speech is preposed.

They ban "said NP" even when the subject NP is long and complex. In fact they ban it even when the subject contains additional parenthetical interruptions and thus cries out to have a place at the end of the clause. Chris cites this sentence:

"He used to have this great, dignified passion to him," Christopher Hitchens, who, until his own political change of heart, defended Chomsky, says. (Larissa MacFarquhar, "The devil's accountant", The New Yorker, March 31, 2003, p.67, column 2.)

The subject together with the verb says make up what CGEL calls the reporting frame, and here it is parenthetical. But the subject (the phrase Christopher Hitchens, who, until his own political change of heart, defended Chomsky) itself contains a supplement (the relative clause who, until his own political change of heart, defended Chomsky, which is of the supplementary type), and that too contains a supplement (the parenthetically comma-marked temporal adjunct until his own political change of heart). So we have a supplement inside a supplement inside a supplement, and still the New Yorker's fierce and unyielding house style code will not allow the subject to be postposed, to yield what could have been a perfectly acceptable sentence:

"He used to have this great, dignified passion to him," says Christopher Hitchens, who, until his own political change of heart, defended Chomsky.

How on earth can The New Yorker struggle on, printing horrible stylistic botches solely in order to deny the reader the comfort of a nicely balanced sentence with a postposed subject in a reporting frame? Why do they treat constructions as simple and natural as "Good gracious", said the bishop as if they represented some kind of gross grammatical turpitude?

What sort of writer do they admire? Is Charles Dickens all right? I chose a Dickens novel at random (A Tale of Two Cities), and rapidly found "Wo-ho!" said the coachman in the 6th paragraph of Chapter II. Would G. K. Chesterton be considered capable of writing grammatical English prose? I found "The two clergymen," said the waiter… in the first chapter of The Innocence of Father Brown.

It is irritating to waste even this much time confirming something so obvious: there is no such thing as a fluent native speaker and reader of Standard English who rejects such sentences. Someone at The New Yorker is stone crazy.

It's remarkable that editors can be found who have the syntactic sensitivity to spot the opportunities for applying this ban and carry on the work of enforcing it. Most people would not be able to follow an instruction like "Keep to strict subject-verb order in all reporting frames with verbs of saying, even when parenthetical, no matter how long the subject may be." It isn't that easy to keep an eye open for specific syntactic features so you can change them; people tend to read for content and literary effect. But The New Yorker has someone who (i) can identify these syntactic situations flawlessly, and (ii) is astonishingly obedient, and (iii) works for a boss who is stone crazy.

The New Yorker does appear to have staff members who read Language Log. When I mocked their search engine for its ridiculous error message "I'm sorry I couldn't find that for which you were looking", and remarked that I couldn't imagine of what they were thinking, they changed it within about a week. (They still wouldn't risk a stranded preposition, though; they changed it to "Sorry, there are no results matching that search.") But they have never changed the edict about order of subject and verb in reporting frames. Or so it would seem from the case I quoted above (let me point out that I have not yet undertaken a systematic search of their archives, so I am talking about a purely anecdotal observation here).

If some mole in the New Yorker offices would like to explain more, and they dare not comment below, they can reach me at my Gmail account (the login name is my surname), and I promise to protect their anonymity. I realize that at The New Yorker the ghost of E. B. White still walks abroad, and that to strand a preposition or split an infinitive or postpose a subject (or use singular they as I am doing here) would put someone in fear of losing not just their job but their immortal soul. Still, they can share with me privately whatever they know about the reasoning behind the ban, and help me understand why they are being required to favor appallingly clumsy sentence construction over uncontroversially acceptable syntax. Chris Potts and I, and the Language Log readership, would love to know why.



30 Comments

  1. Murugaraj said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 6:53 am

    The first example ("Galleries and magazines…) is not as bad as the second one ("He used to have…). In fact I would prefer the parenthetical intervention in the first example when there is a phrase such as "in an interview":
    "Galleries and magazines send him things, and he doesn't even open them," Zhao Zhao, a younger artist who works as one of Ai's assistants, said in an interview".

  2. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 7:42 am

    He used to have this great, dignified passion to him," Christopher Hitchens, who, until his own political change of heart, defended Chomsky, says.

    Wow. That is perverse, even by the New Yorker's standards. Incidentally, I'm always amused by the New Yorker's insistence on diaresis in words like "cooperate". Is there any other major publication which does?

  3. Bob Lieblich said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 8:27 am

    I think of the New Yorker's little tics as the bitters in the Manhattan. Every so often you're jolted by the realization that you're reading the only magazine so perverse as to require whatever oddity you've just encountered. They plainly see some benefit in separating themselves from the crowd, even if only perversely. Why else, for example, the insistence on an "e" in "vender"? And all those commas around the likes of "June, 2010,"? You won't find those in just any magazine.

    Maybe Time Magazine should hire a latter-day Wolcott Gibbs to do a parody of New Yorker-style.

    [(myl) This hits the nail -- or anyhow some nail -- on the head. As Elwyn Brooks White wrote about the New Yorker (in a 1946 collection of his essays on World Government):

    I am reasonably sure that if some trusty around the place were to submit an editorial demanding that the George Washington Bridge be moved sixty feet further upstream and thatched with straw, the editors would publish it, no questions asked.

    He was describing an attitude towards individual quirks, but at least in matters of usage, there seems to have been a sort of fossilization of idiosyncratic eccentricities that has led to things like the Quotative Inversion Ban and the Possessive Antecedents Ban. Iin the latter case, people like Louis Menand apparently believe that an actual principle of grammar is involved -- but it makes more sense to assume that this was once someone's "move it 60 feet and thatch it with straw" moment, which then became part of the culture.]

  4. Mark P said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 8:29 am

    While I agree that the examples show very clearly that some sentences read much better with "says" further up front, I don't care for it in general. As a former newspaper reporter, I saw the postposed subject formation used way, way too often when it was not necessary (like "The man broke into the room, said police."). It seemed to me an affected, newspapery style, and it began to grate. On the other hand, I'm surprised that any publication would actually prohibit it.

  5. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 8:56 am

    A newspapery style seems quite appropriate for a newspaper, no?

  6. Mark P said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 9:05 am

    I suppose, given the quality of many newspapers, an affected newspapery style is characteristic, if not appropriate.

  7. Timothy Hankins said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 9:20 am

    Tangentially related, but equally annoying, is the habit newspapers and magazines make of butchering style for the sake of beginning a sentence with the subject. I particularly notice this when the article deals with an announcment.

    Here's a perfect example: "Apple on Monday announced a new version of its popular iPhone device."

    This kind of thing makes me desperately wish there was a company actually named "Apple on Monday." If there was, I imagine the sentence would have to read like this: "Apple on Monday on Monday anounced a new version … "

  8. Ben said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 9:48 am

    Oh, the New Yorker style is full of crazy shtick. Any title of anything, even a book, is in quotation marks. Commenters have already noted the weird diaeresis thing. The one that always gets me is the ban on "gotten." They apply that ban to dialog in fiction, they apply it to quotes from American speakers, and the result is just plain wacky. (You'd think I would have got over that by now.) But I think if they didn't have the stubbornness to insist on a perverse style, they wouldn't have the stubbornness to insist on publishing New Yorker-like content.

  9. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 9:56 am

    "You'd think I would have got over that by now".

    Or gotten over it, at the very least.

  10. Bob said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 10:17 am

    I'd be curious to know if this ban applies to any instance of subject inversion or only to journalistic quotative inversion. Would they allow a sentence like "At the bottom of the sea lies the wreck of a ship."

  11. Hyman Rosen said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 10:36 am

    When I read the sentence from the Economist, my first reaction was to read "a gentle…" as describing the speaking resident, not his town.

  12. Dexter Edge said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 11:54 am

    The sample monstrosities from The New Yorker prompted me finally to write a longish blog post about the concept of "cognitive editing," a notion I've been pondering for some time. The post is here:

    http://idiography.blogspot.com/2010/06/stupid-editing-rules-and-editing.html

    As I describe the notion there:

    "'cognitive editing,' … is just a highfalutin way of saying: edit (and write) in such as way as to assist the cognitive processes of your readers as they take in what you've written, and avoid or fix whatever may interfere unnecessarily with those processes. And that 'whatever' covers everything from consistency of spelling and the use of punctuation, to larger issues of syntax, logic, and argument."

    The sentences from The New Yorker make perfect cautionary examples.

  13. Ralph Hickok said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

    I'm inclined to think this was an idiosyncrasy of some former editor, now dead but still revered (perhaps Ross himself), that has been observed mindlessly for decades.
    When I began a stint on the copy desk of the New Bedford Standard-Times back in 1963, I dutifully studied the style book and noticed some very odd things. The oddest was that "massmeeting" was always to be spelled as one word, not as a two-word phrase.
    I asked the news editor about it and, in a rather hushed tone, he said, "Mr. Brewer wants it that way so readers won't think it's a Catholic mass or a Quaker meeting."
    "Mr. Brewer" was Basil Brewer, the owner and publisher of the paper, who had put together the style book with input from some of the editors. At this time, he was suffering from senile dementia and was no longer running the newspaper. He died a couple of years later, but the Standard-Times kept following his style book slavishly for some years, until its acquisition by Dow-Jones.
    I have no doubt that if the newspaper had remained independent, it would still be treating "massmeeting" as one word.

  14. Sarah said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

    Wow. I noticed this months and months ago and just happened to make a post on my own blog about it this morning; a friend assumed I was prompted by your post, but I hadn't seen it, nor had I ever seen or heard anyone else comment on this before. Kind of spooky.

    But yeah, I agree, the way they do it is stupid, especially because I've seen them use the same construction in sentences WAY more convoluted than your Hitchens example.

    [You may have been prompted by getting up and reading Language Log while sleepwalking. It does happen. Or it could have been telepathy: we could be cerebral soulmates, reading each other's minds. Except that I wasn't able to read from your mind what the URL of your blog is. —GKP]

  15. Ed said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    The New Yorker just commendably published an entire issue containing nothing but short stories by writers who were younger than forty (though why the age limitation?). But I suspect that the magazine's many stylistic quirks may work against their attempts to publish fiction. All the stories published in the magazine sound the same.

    Even in my high school English class, of all places, in the 1980s, "New Yorker fiction" became a punchline to a joke referring essentially to an overly dry, self-absorbed short story. But I'm wondering if this isn't a result of overly vigorous editing as much as their selection of writers.

  16. D.O. said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

    It isn't that easy to keep an eye open for specific syntactic features so you can change them; people tend to read for content and literary effect. But The New Yorker has someone who (i) can identify these syntactic situations flawlessly,

    Maybe they have trained the finder in whatever software they use to spot it. Not very hard given that number of the "reporting words" is quite limited.

  17. Stentor said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

    My college newspaper insisted on this style rule as well. The way they explained it to me was that it sounded pretentious to say "said he," and so therefore we should always write "he said," and therefore for consistency we must always put any speaker identification before "said."

  18. Sid Smith said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

    The (London) Times — where I'm a sub-editor — has the same rule. It's not vigorously enforced, tho — at least not in Features, where I mostly work: they may be tougher in News.

    But if the NYer bosses insist on this nonsense, it'd be better to do a rewrite — which is often the best policy when dealing with mad chief subs:

    'Until his own political change of heart, Christopher Hitchens defended Chomsky. "He used to have this great, dignified passion to him," Hitchens says.'

    In fact, you could argue that the source of the problem is permitting long, convoluted non-newspaper sentences while inflicting newspaper rule-rigidity.

  19. Sid Smith said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 4:46 pm

    On the subject of mad chief subs:

    They all get that way in the end. My first journo job was on a computer magazine. We reviewed the computer game version of 'The Eagle Has Landed'. Our CS, who changed every 'etcetera' to 'and so on' (and so on, and so on), altered it to 'The Eagle Has Alighted', on the grounds that only aeroplanes land.

    The poor old b*gger once went into hospital and the subs sent him a card saying 'Become better quickly'.

  20. John said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

    I paged through a few back issues and mostly found examples in support of your point, including a few that were real clunkers, but I also found one instance of subject postposing.

    From "Roulette Russian," in the May 17, 2010 issue:

    "People are, from a gut, instinctual level, so interested in finding each other. You see the lonely in people," says Scott Heiferman, the founder of Meetup, a site the facilitates in-person meetings for people with common interests.

  21. Jim said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 6:48 pm

    "What on earth is wrong with them?"

    They're New Yorkers,and it's not really thier native language?

    [Hey, let's not mock New Yorkers until we are quite sure we're putting spaces after our commas and spelling our pronouns correctly, OK? Go stand over there until your face stops being red. —GKP]

  22. Gatwood said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 7:40 pm

    This sort of rule is what comes of overthinking things. A fiction writer recently advised me not to postpose the subject in dialogue tags unless I was writing for children. I was so thrown that I immediately went to Google Books and ran some searches in a contemporary anthology for adults. My instincts were right, of course.

  23. Sybil said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 10:46 pm

    Oy, Jim, don't confuse "The New Yorker" with New Yorkers!

  24. Alan said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 1:24 am

    "I would hope that, based on the President's judicial nominations so far, you will see him appoint Justices more in line with a conservative judicial philosophy," Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel to the American Center for Law and Justice, an advocacy group funded by the Reverend Pat Robertson, says. (New Yorker, May 26, 2003)

  25. Spectre-7 said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 2:26 am

    A fiction writer recently advised me not to postpose the subject in dialogue tags unless I was writing for children.

    May I pass along a personal rule concerning fiction writing?

    Do as other writers do, not as they say. Their advice is often baseless voodoo and hokum that they don't even follow themselves, and paying it any mind will tend to leave you in a state of nervous confusion (a precursor to nervous cluelessness).

    I find it much more useful to solicit feedback from heavy readers who don't fancy themselves writers, if only because they're more representative of my intended market. The average reader doesn't worry about the masculinity of your verbs or how often you use the passive voice; they just know what they like and what strikes them as awkward. That kind of feedback is bloody priceless.

  26. maidhc said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 4:51 am

    There's a continuum, on which "not reminding people too much of Dan Brown" occupies one point, and "writing a novel in 26 chapters, each of which omits one letter of the alphabet" occupies another.

    Well, maybe it's more of a multidimensional space. In any case, one can stake out a particular location in this universe and defend its superiority against all others.

    It may be a successful strategy, like that adorable little village in the Cotswolds where all the houses must have thatched roofs. Or it could be more like that "Dickensian London" package tour or the "Living Odyssey" Mediterranean cruise.

  27. Marco said,

    June 11, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

    It's interesting that my comment was deleted. After reviewing the commenting policy, I felt as though I was polite, specific, and well-informed on the subject (although that depend on your perspective). I can only guess as to why they decided to delete it. I'm shocked and disappointed–disappointed that I won't get a reply to what seemed like a valid argument. So all I can say is, oh well.

  28. Elizabeth said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 8:21 am

    I had to pipe up here even though I'm coming in on the local…

    The New Yorker's fussy style interferes with smooth reading. All those double consonants (I could swear "focussed" appears at least once in every article), the show-offy and completely unnecessary diaeresis, saying "got" even when it sounds stupid, comma-clogged sentences. I'd have thought the goal, or at least one of them, was not to irritate readers.

    But every week my daughter asks, "Did you see the New Yorker article about…" and I do like to keep up.

  29. Terry Collmann said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 6:08 pm

    Elizabeth: "saying 'got' even when it sounds stupid …"

    Doesn't sound stupid to us British.

    Sid Smith: the way the London Times news section avoided this problem was never to have unintroduced quotes, that is, the name of the person speaking always went before whatever they said. So it would be:

    Christopher Hitchens, who, until his own political change of heart, defended Chomsky, says: "He used to have this great, dignified passion to him."

    This has the advantage of letting the reader know who is speaking before they learn what is being said.

  30. Anonymous Copy Editor said,

    June 21, 2010 @ 9:49 pm

    It's a journalism thing.

    There seems to be a large contingent of copy editors who learned nothing from j-school except, "Never put 'said' next to the name of the speaker, and always put dates and adverbs in the most awkward possible spot."

    I have too many co-workers who mark up my pages by moving the "onlys" and "alreadys" around and think they're editing. >_<

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