Forget everything you thought you knew about sentences.
INCE The New York Times Public Editor explained to a reader that the sentence "O'Keefe dressed up as a pimp and trained his hidden camera on ACORN counselors" did not mean that O'Keefe "did those two things at the same time," readers have been waiting impatiently for the Times to issue its "updated rules of grammar for 21st century journalism." A few of the new rules, seen here for the first time, give a good indication of where English grammar appears to be headed.
First, the Times elaborates on sentences such as the O'Keefe-ACORN example, which contain "two independent clauses separated by 'and.'" With the new rules in place, a sentence such as "Jane dressed for work and got into her car" could be interpreted in one of several modes:
Traditional: Jane dressed for work and then got into her car.
Speculative: Jane dressed for work and then did a bunch of other things, which might include undressing and putting on something else entirely different, then got into her car.
Transitional: Jane dressed for work, got a run in her stocking, and thought, 'What the hell, I'll just call in sick,' then got into her car to retrieve her favorite cd so she could do some pilates in her living room.
"With our news rules of grammar," states The New York Times, "the second independent clause is more independent from the first than ever before. Readers must be on the lookout for clues as to which mode is being employed in such a sentence.
"Note: Reading the article in which the sentence appears provides no clues whatsoever. By 'clues' we mean primarily 'reader intuition.' Does the sentence sound right to you? Have you heard this sort of thing before? What did that thing turn out to mean? We would, in short, like our readers to take more responsibility for the factual side of the interaction."
Example number two deals with sentences that state opposite premises separated by a conjunction such as "whereas" or "although." Using old grammatical rules, this sentence structure used to signal that the reporter's research into both claims would appear in the article and thereby separate the factual premise from the false one.
But with the new rules in place, a sentence such as "Jack claims the earth is flat, whereas Jill claims the earth is round" can now be interpreted in one of the following ways:
Jack-centered: Jack is probably correct; the earth is flat.
Jill-centered: Jill is probably correct; the earth is round.
Consensus-building: There is a grain of truth in what both Jack and Jill say.
Pan-skeptical: They're both lying bastards and can't be trusted.
"There is no right or wrong information with the new grammatical rules in place," says the Times. "Far be it from us to decide for the reader what is fact and what is fiction. Remember, Google is a free research tool that is not blocked like our content will be next year unless you pay a reasonable subscription fee."
The third rule addresses sentence structures that appear remarkably similar to sentence structures that have already appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Although the term applied in this case is still "plagiarism," it will not be used by the Times "for two years, or until we find a replacement journalist, whichever comes last."
The newspaper of record says that any additional grammatical rule adjustments will be made public "solely at our discretion." However, readers should, they insist, "continue to read our paper with the utmost confidence that our news is as complete and accurate as our rigorous standards demand," adding, "by 'rigorous' we have been known to mean 'capricious' and by 'standards' we might mean 'egomaniac at the helm.' But don't quote us."
© 3.11.10 Kate Heidel