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 perfect, past 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 complete, whole, 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.

[tags]safire, william safire, on language, grammar, parts of speech, noun, adjective, new york times, nytimes[/tags]

7 Responses to “Dear New York Times: Nobody’s a perfect”

  1. on 23 Jul 2008 at 11:42 am LR

    I think you meant “The Gray Lady.”

  2. on 23 Jul 2008 at 12:11 pm The Name Inspector

    “The Gray Lady” it is, then. (Not “The Grey Lady”.)

  3. on 23 Jul 2008 at 12:13 pm The Name Inspector

    LR, you should consider working as an editor for the New York Times.

  4. on 24 Jul 2008 at 6:34 am bioephemera

    Much as I abhor this travesty, anything that generates the comment “It’s possible that Safire was just kicking it old school” was worth it!

    It’s also possible that some zealous junior copyeditor screwed up – I found that in the first part of the paperback of Cass Sunstein’s “Infotopia,” the author Mark Helprin and journalist Mark Halperin were confused. I am sure Sunstein must know the difference, so I infer that some factotum along the editorial line thought he or she knew better. . .

  5. on 26 Jul 2008 at 5:35 am JB

    I must defend the “grey lady” – isn’t this a British vs. American spelling thing? Is the Name Inspector actually British? Full disclosure: I am Ms. Name Inspector, so I should really know the answer to that second question already…

  6. on 26 Jul 2008 at 6:06 am The Name Inspector

    Thanks for standing by your man, JB. But you have to figure, American newspaper, American spelling.

    biophemera, one even wonders whether the column might not have been WRITTEN by someone other than the true Safire. An intern/”fact checker”, perhaps?

  7. on 29 Jul 2008 at 3:11 am 1Letterman

    Scientists learn that world is about to be struck by a gigantic meteor. Naturally, they report this to all the media outlets. Here are a few of the headlines.

    CHICAGO TRIB: Earth Ends Tomorrow! Giant Meteor Approaches!

    LA TIMES: DISASTER! Earth to collide with Planet Killer!

    NY TIMES: World to END Tomorrow! Women and minorities hardest hit!

    That’s my feeling on the NY Times.

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