Kevin Sun

Grammatical errors in The New York Times

I combed through 17 quizzes written by the NYT, and in this post, I summarize the solutions. I also share some of my favorite uncategorized errors; a spoiler-free version is here.

July 17, 2020

In November 2016, The New York Times began publishing "Copy Edit This!", a series that "invites readers to correct grammatical errors in recent NYT articles."

It's like that section on the SAT/ACT: they give you a sentence (or short passage), and your job is to identify the error in grammar or word usage. There are currently 17 quizzes, and each quiz has 10-15 questions.

After taking these quizzes, I'd like to share some of the common-er errors, as well as the ones that I thought were more interesting. Hopefully NYT doesn't sue me.

(Note: I understand that it would be quite ironic if this posts contains any grammatical errors. Alas, I can't make any guarantees. In particular, I readily admit that I can be inconsistent with punctuation in/out of quotation marks.)

In Sections 1-4, I cover some of the common errors; these also tend to be easier to spot. In Section 5, I present the more "interesting" ones. And finally, in Section 6, I speculate about the future (just a little bit).

1. Subject-verb agreement

In my mind, this is the quintessential grammatical error. Everybody knows to look out for this. In fact, the first question on Quiz 1 is a simple example:

The patchwork of laws governing background checks, assault-weapons limits and open-carry practices helphelps explain why people continue to be wounded and killed.

(It's also interesting to note that they omitted the Oxford comma. Apparently, it's not really their thing.)

Another common form of this error is "one of the X that [verb]", where "X" is plural. In this case, [verb] should agree with this plural form. Here's an example from Quiz 10:

... which also pretty much sums up "The Room," one of those cultish attractions that isare so terrible it makesthey make you wonder...

And another from Quiz 11:

... It was one of the books that waswere in my house...

This was somewhat surprising — I often hear (and maybe even say) the incorrect version. Upon further research, I discovered that it's not actually so clear cut (see e.g., 1, 2). After all, there's a very similar construction that definitely uses the singular form. In fact, here's an example from Quiz 8:

Gen. Hulusi Akar, the current chief of staff, remains in his post, but one of the three newly appointed armed forces chiefs areis likely to replace him when he retires.

In this case, "one" (not "chiefs") is the subject, so the verb should be singular.

2. Misplaced modifiers

This error is tempting to make because it's a simple way to convey a well-understood meaning. These sentences usually start with some description of X, but the actual subject of the sentence turns out to be Y. Although it's technically incorrect, the reader can usually infer the original intent. Here's an example from Quiz 12:

Ms. Hicks never gave a single on-camera interview during her time in the White House. Unlike her boss, attention from the news media was never something she sought.

In this example, "unlike her boss" is supposed to describe Ms. Hicks, but it actually modifies "attention". Here's an even more obvious one, from Quiz 9:

Being a rare temperate day in Washington with tolerable humidity, we requested a table in the restaurant's outdoor section, which abuts a busy sidewalk.

Also, I think "abuts" sounds weird, but maybe that's just me.

3. Word choice

These errors often involve homophones, homonyms, homographs, and the like. (I can't define any of these, but I know they're different.)

I won't give any context, but here some examples that stood out to me: disburse/disperse, auger/augur, unchartered/uncharted, forego/forgo (and foregone/forgone), lay/lie (and laid/lay), tort/torte, and jibe/gibe (and I'll also throw in jive).

A "word choice" error can also refer to redundant words. For example, the "free" in "free gift" is redundant, and so is the "self-" in "self-confessed."

Now let's look at three "classic" word choice errors: who/whom, like/as, and may/might.

Who/whom: Everyone's favorite. In contrast to the "usual" offense (I'm guessing), most of these errors use "whom" instead of "who". Perhaps it's illustrating an "overcorrection" bias in journalistic writing. Here's an example from Quiz 12:

Mr. Trump also exploited polarization over Israel to rally supporters against Barack Obama, whomwho he repeatedly suggested was foreign-born.

The solution calls this "an extremely common type of relative-pronoun error." Here's another example, from Quiz 10:

... But militia rule has accustomed many to the idea that power belongs to whomeverwhoever has the guns.

But not all of these errors were "overcorrecting." Here's an opposite example from Quiz 13:

The previously undisclosed details about Ms. Veselnitskaya rekindle questions about whowhom she was representing when she met with Donald Trump Jr., ...

Like/as: As we all know, "like" is a very useful word in everyday speech. But in many of the passages, the correct word to use is "as" — here's an example from Quiz 14:

First, Iran's leadership is more complex... making it harder for Tehran to reverse course likeas Mr. Kim did, and reach out to Mr. Trump.

And here's another example, from Quiz 17:

LikeAs he did in 2016 with much success, Mr. Sanders still prescribes a wholesale revolution in soaring terms.

May/might: As far as I can remember, all of the examples use the more formal-sounding "may" instead of the grammatically correct "might". Perhaps this is another example of "overcorrection" in journalistic writing. Here's an example from Quiz 15:

West Wing aides had hoped to keep the Kansas race away from Mr. Trump's line of sight, but were uneasy about what he maymight do during an extended, and unsupervised, trip to his New Jersey golf resort.

And another from Quiz 16:

... If everyone had been ordered to leave at once, the evacuation maymight have been more perilous, he said.

Again, I'd like to emphasize: "whom" and "may" often appear erroneously (instead of "who" and "might"), perhaps because they sound more formal. However, the word "like" is so powerful that the more formal-sounding "as" does not experience this "overcorrection" phenomenon. Anyway, that's just, like, my guess.

4. The gerund possessive pronoun

I'm giving this one its own section because it seems especially specific to writing. There's just something about this construction that sounds extra pompous, if you ask me. Here's an example, from Quiz 12:

Investigators have said the bomber had to possess some level of skill to build and transport devices without themtheir blowing up prematurely.

In my experience, the incorrect "without them blowing up" sounds much better than the official solution given above. If we want to retain this "natural" sound while also being grammatically correct, then we should use "without having them blow up..." (which is another official solution). Here's a second example, from Quiz 9:

That included a time when Mr. Cagney decided to put customer service representatives in charge of lending determinations, despite themtheir having no experience in the area.

This time, the official solution states that a "better" fix is "even though they had no experience..." In case anyone cares, I agree with this.

A final example, from Quiz 16:

The Treasury Department announced last month that it had negotiated a deal with Mr. Deripaska's companies to lift the sanctions in exchange for himhis reducing his control and ownership.

Too bad "his" appears twice in the span of three words — that sounds kind of weird.

5. Miscellaneous

Finally, we've arrived at the more "interesting" grammatical errors. Most of these errors are rare, caught me off guard, or otherwise intrigued me in some surprising way.

If you'd like a spoiler-free version, please click here.

  1. From Quiz 3:

    "We should be embarrassed as a city, every single one of us, that we've allowed this city to become the poster boy of violence in America," said the Rev. Michael Pfleger, an activist and pastor of a Catholic church on the South Side. "Are we just going to shake our heads and say, 'What a terrible year in Chicago?'"

    The fact that much of this passage is a quote should make our task easier, because I doubt they'd pick out a grammar error in someone's speech. Yet this one tripped me up — the question mark, at the very end, is in the wrong spot.

  2. From Quiz 3:

    The president-elect has long held a financial stake in "The Apprentice" franchise. His original contract in 2003 with Mark Burnett, the show's creator, promised Mr. Trump as much as 50 percent of the show's gross receipts after costs, and 20 percent from other versions of the show, like international editions, according to a copy of the contract obtained by The New York Times.

    Another one that's pretty long. Perhaps the longer ones are inherently more difficult because there are more distractions. Anyway, I thought this one was quite sneaky, and I believe it's the only example of this type. In the first sentence,

    in "The Apprentice" franchise

    should actually be

    in the "Apprentice" franchise

    According to the official solution, dropping the "the" is permissible, since "The Apprentice" already beings with "the".

  3. From Quiz 6:

    This dramatic shift in focus has confirmed what conservatives said they always feared when Democrats granted the government expansive new powers over health care. The government can giveth, they said, but it can almost never taketh away.

    Obviously, we don't often encounter the words "giveth" and "taketh", so it's unclear if they're being used correctly. But if you think they're not, then you'd be correct: "giveth" and "taketh" are equivalent to "gives" and "takes", so "can giveth" doesn't make sense.

    Later in Quiz 11, we see more attempts at adding linguistic flourishes that contain grammatical errors. These issues also touch upon gender neutrality, which I'll briefly discuss later.

    Carles Puigdemont, the ousted and self-exiled separatist leader of Catalonia and the bĂȘte noirnoire of the Spanish government...

    In late 2014, Joseph Percoco, a well-known and feared fixture in Albany and one of the governor's closest confidantesconfidants, was alternately...

    In these examples, we have English sentences using French vocabulary. Since French nouns sometimes have a "masculine" and "feminine" form (like "actor" or "actress" in English), in order to be grammatically correct, we must use the correct form.

    Or maybe not. The solution to the "noir" question actually says "A word of advice for English-speaking writers using French phrases: Don't." So let that be a warning.

  4. From Quiz 8:

    But the calendar doesn't stop at the end of the century, and continued warming beyond that will begin to make parts of the planet uninhabitable for mammals like ourselves, because of the dangers of heat stress.

    Yet another possible "overcorrection" in journalistic writing, in an attempt to sound more "formal" (as far as I can tell). In this case, I think the consonance (mammals like ourselves) is also a tempting factor.

    The error is "ourselves" should simply be "us". According to the solution, the NYT stylebook says this: "The self words... are used for emphasis (She will do it herself) and to turn the action in a sentence back on the subject (He composed himself quickly)."

  5. From Quiz 11:

    Then again, it is one of the only places in the city where you can end a meal with steamed black-sugar cakes, soft and homey and rarely seen outside their hometown, Okinawa.

    This one sounds extremely correct to me. But, upon reading the solution, I suppose it's not: "one of the only" doesn't make sense. The official solution recommends replacing "only" with "few". Fine, I guess...

  6. From Quiz 13:

    The reason the Mets had been playing Cespedes of late despite the injury was because they wanted his potent bat in their slumping lineup.

    Another grammatically incorrect phrase that sounds fine when you say it out loud. The solution says it's redundant to use both "reason" and "because". So instead of "The reason X happened is because Y," just say "X happened because Y."

    Or, in case you want to be wordier, you can use "The reason X happened is that Y." (This fix appeared as a solution in Quiz 8.)

  7. From Quiz 14:

    Many may have forgotten, or never learned how, to compete for workers.

    This one's interesting because whether or not there's an "error" depends on the desired meaning. According to the official solution, the "how" should come after the comma (not before) because it goes with both "forgotten" and "learned". In essence, they're describing the existence of two types of businesses (or whatever subject we're using):

    1. Those that have forgotten how to compete.

    2. Those that never learned how to compete.

      However, maybe the true intention of the sentence is to describe these businesses:

    3. Those that have forgotten to compete (but do know how).

    4. Those that never learned how to compete.

      If this is the case, then I think the original statement is fine. But I guess any business that genuinely "forgot" to compete is a somewhat questionable business.

      The "better" fix, offered by the official solution, is to rephrase entirely: "Many may have forgotten how to compete for workers, or never learned." Looks like the "how" at the end should be implicit.

  8. From Quiz 14:

    With his tweet, the latest in a week of dizzying statements by a president whose advisers say has become more unwilling than ever to listen to advice, Mr. Trump signaled open warfare on Mr. Cohen, a longtime fixer he had until now tried to keep by his side.

    There's a lot going on in this sentence, and a lot of room for error. But the usual errors (e.g., subject-verb agreement, misplaced modifier) don't seem to appear.

    The actual error is quite subtle (in my opinion), so I'm not going to pretend I really know what's going on. But basically, there's something wrong with the "whose". On the one hand, it's indicates that the "advisers" are the president's advisers — this part is clear. At the same time, it's trying to serve as the answer to "Who has become more unwilling to listen?" But "whose" cannot fill this latter role, so we need more words.

    The solution offers "whose advisers say he has become" as a "correct but still awkward" fix. Interestingly, the alternative solution replaces "whose" with "who", and assumes that the reader knows that "advisers" refers to the president's advisers. This was the only solution I remember that recommends leaning on the context as part of the fix.

  9. From Quiz 15:

    Each of the three candidates vying to replace Mr. Flake, who is retiring after a single term, aligned themselves with Mr. Trump.

    This might be the most truly "interesting" one, so here's the entire official solution:

    Solution: The mismatch between the singular "each" and the plural "themselves" would be easily remedied by saying "All three candidates..."

    Basically, it sounds like NYT doesn't support "they" as a singular, genderless pronoun since they call it a "mismatch." In contrast, I believe that "they" can (and perhaps should) serve this role when gender is unspecified, and Merriam-Webster supports me. Since this question has no additional context, I think "themselves" is actually correct.

    Again, hopefully NYT doesn't sue me.

  10. From Quiz 17. This one's a headline!

    As 2-Year Anniversary of Grenfall Blaze Nears, Lawsuit is Filed in Pennsylvania

    Pretty straightforward, but hard to see because it's so commonly spoken. The word "anniversary" already implies a notion of "once per year," so "2-Year Anniversary" should be "Second Anniversary". I guess it'd be like saying "health-related illness."

6. More quizzes?

Let's end with some speculation about these "Copy Edit This!" quizzes. As you can probably tell, I'm a big fan, and I hope they make more (preferably with questions I find "interesting").

But will they? I "did the math" and found that the average gap length (among the 17 quizzes that currently exist) is almost exactly 60 days. The latest quiz was published on June 26, 2019, which was over 380 days ago, so I'm guessing there won't be any more quizzes.

I suppose I could try to make the quizzes myself (by reading a ton of NYT and looking for errors) but I don't think I'd get very far.