Sunday, November 11, 2007

The New Yorker Moved a Preposition

Here I sat, ready to write an article about why cursing creates poor writing, when I ran across another topic entirely. That will teach me to do some research! (No, really, it reinforces my belief that research can open up a topic in whole new directions and perhaps improve your focus.)

I don't want to post the whole breadcrumb trail that led me to it, but suffice it to say that a comment on Language Hat lead me to their post about Geoff Pullum's Language Log post about ending a sentence with a preposition.

The first thing that struck me was the fraught (even over-wrought) nature of the Language Hat page, especially in the comments. Sheesh, people, we're talking about grammar, not war crimes. If I weren't passionate about it I wouldn't blog about it, but neither would I censure people for having an opinion with which I disagree.

Then I read Mr. Pullum's post and realized that he had used a self-referential joke as the starting point for his post and it was the joke to which folks were having such a strong reaction. Apparently, if you run a search with no results at the New Yorker, it returns a page that says, “I'm sorry I couldn't find that for which you were looking.” Mr. Pullum started a chain reaction of overreaction with his response.

When first I read this sentence, I couldn't imagine what about it could possibly offend so many people. Apparently, it's too correct. I would have thought the quibble would have been with the first two words (sentence? clause? omitted “that”?) and looked forward to the magazine being taken to task for such an odd grammatical construct. But I found that the comments were about the New Yorker having changed “that you were looking for” to “that for which you were looking”.

I'm glad they did. It shows people that those prepositions can be moved easily. It also fits with their image. As a branding move, this sentence strikes just the right note. It sounds more elegant than, “That search returned no results.” It shows more style than, “We couldn't find any pages containing that term.” And, perhaps best of all, it irritates people into posting about it, which draws traffic to the New Yorker page attempting to see it for themselves. That's one smooth move.