Dear New York Times: Nobody’s a perfect

Originally published Jul 23, 2008

The Name Inspector is usually too busy inspecting names to scold people about other linguistic matters. But in this case he can no longer stand to remain silent. He emailed William Safire about an error that appeared in his column On Language way back in April. He’s been waiting for a public outcry, rowdy demonstrations in the streets, an embarrassed retraction from The Gray Lady. But, zilch.

The column appeared in the New York Times Magazine on April 13, and was titled “Revanche is Sweet”. It had a section about Senator Barack Obama’s use of the word perfect in his big speech about race. Safire concerned himself with the use of the word as a verb and as a noun.

Wait, did The Name Inspector just say “noun”? Yes, he did, because that’s what Safire called the form of the word perfect that’s pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable:

The primary meaning of the noun, pronounced PERfect, is “complete, whole, finished,” and the verb taking that action, pronounced perFECT, means “to complete, make whole, finish.”

Dear reader, that’s not a noun. It’s an adjective. Of course you knew that. (If you didn’t, you might be feeling a little insecure right now. But do you write a column for the paper of record that’s billed as being, you know, On Language? Are you “the most widely read writer on the English language”? No? Then you won’t bear the full brunt of The Name Inspector’s scorn. Though you might get a funny look and a disbelieving but sympathetic shake of the head.)

This was no fluke. The article referred to perfect as a noun no fewer than four times.

Now, sometimes perfect is in fact used as a noun. For example, when it’s the name of a grammatical category indicating completed action and related notions, as in present perfectpast perfect, and future perfect. An editor or teacher might say “You should use the perfect here”. That’s a noun (though even in this context people might think of it as shorthand for “the perfect form” or something like that). Perfect might also be used as a noun when people are discussing philosophical abstractions, as in “The perfect is the enemy of the good”, the common English translation of Voltaire’s “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien”.

But perfect meaning ‘complete, whole, finished’ in a more general sense is an adjective. As are the words completewhole, and, sometimes, finished.

There are two issues of concern here. One, what was Safire thinking? And two, how did this get past the editorial staff of the New York Times Magazine? The Name Inspector can’t resist observing that the self-appointed guardians of correct usage are often among those who are most susceptible to the occasional cluelessness about grammatical facts.

It’s possible that Safire was just kicking it old school with his grammatical terminology. Really old school. One definition of noun in the Oxford English Dictionary is simply ‘An adjective’. This is described as an obsolete and rare variant of the term noun adjective, and the most recent citation given is from 1669. If that’s what Safire and the NYTM had in mind, it’s time for them to invest in a new English reference grammar. The Name Inspector recommends Huddleston and Pullum’s The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, though A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language by Quirk et al. is also quite nice.

It’s seems more likely that this was just a dumb mistake. In that case, print a correction! Everyone makes mistakes. Nobody’s a perfect. (Now that’s a noun!) Own up to this and help your younger readers avoid the grammatical confusions of their elders.

And New York Times Magazine? If you should ever need a savvy observer of language who knows his way around the web and can tell a noun from an adjective, The Name Inspector can recommend someone.

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