Who Said What? NYTimes Editors Take A Day Off

In the First Draft post for the New York Times today:

As Mr. Blum introduced Mr. Paul, he spoke about casting his first vote in Congress against John A. Boehner for speaker.

“I don’t report to John Boehner. I report to all of you wonderful people,” the senator told a crowd that had gathered in a sports bar to see him.

The room erupted in applause. Mr. Paul stood there looking on.

In this excerpt, there are two people named as “actors” — Mr. Blum (a representative) and Mr. Paul (a senator).

The first sentence uses the pronouns “he” and “his” — but does that refer to Mr. Blum or Mr. Paul? Grammatically, it should refer to Mr. Blum, who is the actor (the subject) of the opening phrase “Mr. Blum introduced…”. This is also reasonable since Mr. Blum is a representative and only representatives vote for (or against) the candidate for speaker.

But the next sentence attributes the quote to “the senator” — that would be Mr. Paul, not Mr. Blum. This is reinforced by the reference to the crowd that had gathered to see “him” — Mr. Paul is a well-known public figure, Mr. Blum is not. But if the senator is making the statement, what do we make of the quote “I don’t report to Mr. Boehner”? No senator does, since Mr. Boehner is speaker of the House and has no leadership role over senators. For this statement to have meaning, it should have been made by a House member — by Mr. Blum.

The final sentence, however, says “Mr. Paul stood there looking on.” This makes it sound like he was a spectator to all of this, not an actor. Was it Mr. Paul (“the senator”) who said the words that caused the room to “erupt”? Or was Mr. Blum speaking, relegating Mr. Paul to the role of a spectator who “stood there looking on”?

Where is the editor? Couldn’t this confusing misuse of words and pronouns have been detected on first read and reconstructed for clarity?

Whenever two people are named as actors in a piece of writing, the writer must use pronouns with great care. To cast pronouns about as they are in this real-life example leads to a jumble of words and messages that leaves the reader with more questions than answers.

I’ll grant that this section is “First Draft”, and perhaps that signals the use of “raw thoughts” published without the benefit of an editor or a grammarian. But this is the New York Times, not some words scrawled into a reporter’s notebook.

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