Thursday, November 1, 2007

First time for everything

I've never been in the New York Times ... until today!

Unprecedented, you say? Not so fast.

As I've said before, "unprecedented" is one of those words that drives me crazy. So when I noticed this week that the New York Times editor who oversees language issues for the newspaper was responding online to questions from readers, I jumped at the chance to register my gripe. Today they used my question.

Here's my published exchange with the editor, Philip B. Corbett (that's his mug above, from the NYT):

An Unprecedented Question

Q. First, thank you. The current discussion is very interesting, and I admire the evenness of your tone and the thoughtfulness of your answers.

My question concerns the use of a pet-peeve word: unprecedented. A favorite editor, discouraging the word's use, once told me there's a precedent for almost everything. I agree, and yet I seem to see it cropping up more and more. The Times isn't as guilty on this score as many other publications, but even in your paper I see Moscow imposing unprecedented restrictions on election observers, an unprecedented federal aviation survey, unprecedented numbers of uninsured patients, and dairy costs at unprecedented levels. And that's just one day!

I've had trouble getting reporters and editors in my own newsroom to address this language tic. Or maybe it's just me. What do you think?

— Mark Matassa, Seattle

A. Mr. Matassa is in good company with this pet peeve. Al Siegal, who literally wrote the book on The Times's style, also discouraged use of this word, for the same reason. Our stylebook elaborates:

UNPRECEDENTED means for the first time. Do not modify the word with a term like very, rather or almost; either something is unprecedented or (far more likely) it is not. Use the term rarely, and only after verifying the history. Then carefully specify the aspect that qualifies.

It may be that since Mr. Siegal's retirement last year, our vigilance on this point has eroded. I'll keep an eye out.

There! See that, people?

Anyway, Mr. Corbett's entire "Talk to the Newsroom" Q&A is very good. I recommend it for language geeks, news hounds and anyone interested in good writing.


Janice said...

Looks like you scored some points there

Rita said...


michelle said...

wow. how cool is that?

kateco said...

super cool

Michele Matassa Flores said...

Wow, you're a star! And too smart.

Ronelle said...

How cool Mark...a “Maher” (okay, so Matassa kind of gets in the way) in the NY Times... unprecedented! Really, it is! Seriously, interesting insight - I will think twice before I use that word again.