Language enthusiasts who prize precision in writing are often accused of being nothing more than busybody nit-pickers.
But there’s more than a nit to pick in this sentence from a recent edition of the New York Times: “In fact, there is no evidence of widespread mail-in voting fraud, many states already allow it, and some studies suggest that it actually helps Republicans.”
Say what? In that quoted sentence the word “it” appears twice. To what does “it” refer? Please reread the sentence before answering.
Even though professional communicators wrote and edited that sentence, it does not say what they mean. In fact, it says exactly the opposite. The word “it” refers to the closest preceding noun — mail-in voting fraud — not, as the writer intended, to mail-in voting.
The sentence says that many states allow mail-in voting fraud, and that it may actually help Republicans. It should have said: “There is no evidence of widespread mail-in voting fraud; many states already allow mail-in voting, and some studies suggest that it actually helps Republicans.”
Little things — such as the word “it” and what it refers to — do mean a lot. Those little things can change the meaning we had so clearly in mind.
That mistake in the New York Times turns out to be no little thing. Careful readers, confronted with an assertion that many states allow mail-in voting fraud, are likely to be stunned. And then, seeing the error, they are likely to feel poorly served by a news organization they want and need to trust.
Same goes for communication by any business.
Just before graduating from journalism school, I went to NBC News, praying to be hired.
But NBC’s interviewer said, “We won’t hire you until you work at a newspaper, where any story you write will be vetted by three or four sets of eyes. That protects the public, your employer, your sources and subjects, and your career. NBC doesn’t have that many layers of supervision. Call me in a few years. And good luck.”
Good luck landed me at the Minneapolis Star, where my editors were exacting.
That way lay the road, not to perdition, but to precision.
Twin Cities writing coach and Emmy Award winner Gary Gilson has taught journalism at Colorado College. He can be reached at writebetterwithgary.com.