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Interesting Examples of Bad Writing

Redundancy:

"“By blocking Ms. Smith and other important foreign policy nominations, Senator Cruz and his Republican colleagues are shutting down America’s leadership abroad while the refugee crisis rages on,” Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said Thursday in a statement."
- Carl Hulse, Partisan Tussle Keeps Top U.S. Aid Job Vacant, New York Times, Sept. 10, 2015


Mangled English:

"Another 200 people, however, will remain on the sanctions list under for other reasons, including terrorist activities, human rights abuses, involvement in civil wars in Syria or Yemen or ties to the country’s ballistic missile program. ... It is an opening to Iran that represents a huge roll of the dice, one that will be debated long after Mr. Obama he has built his presidential library."
- David Sangerjan, Iran Complies With Nuclear Deal; Sanctions Are Lifted, NYT, Jan. 16, 2016


Wrong Word:

"Sanders has been stressing his war on Wall Street, but now Clinton is lacing out at his health care plan, which is basically universal Medicare."
- Gail Collins, Hillary and Bernie, Punching, NYT, Jan. 15, 2016


"The E.P.A. would effectively change how automobiles are propelled (with electricity, not gasoline) and how electricity is delivered (via wind and solar, not coal), said Bob Persciacepe, the agency’s deputy administrator during Mr. Obama’s first term."
- Coral Davenport, E.P.A. Faces Bigger Tasks, Smaller Budgets and Louder Critics, March 18, 2016


"In an encounter with the patient, the officers stunned him with a Taser and shot him in the chest, the bullet nearly missing his heart. He survived after spending four days in intensive care." [According to an earlier article, the wound was "just millimeters from his heart".]
- Elisabeth Rosenthal, Assault Charges Against Man Shot in Texas Hospital Are Dropped, March 18, 2016


"Many economists and political scientists now think that the United States economy has shifted, over the past few decades, toward one in which a higher proportion of the economy comes from so-called rents: Wall Street’s maneuvering through the regulatory process, ‘‘free-trade’’ deals whose thousands of pages of rules wind up proscribing winners and losers."
- Adam Davidson, What Donald Trump Doesn’t Understand About ‘the Deal’, NYT, March 17, 2016


The seeds of the biggest upset in American politics in recent memory were sewn here, in the Midwest, where decades of economic decay largely ignored by Democrats came back to haunt Mrs. Clinton.
- Sabrina Taverise, Ohioans, Tired of Status Quo, Flipped to Trump for Change, Nov. 12, 2016


Clouds have descended over Mexico, miring it in a state of anguish and paralysis after the election of Mr. Trump to the highest office in the world. They are clouds of uncertainty and fear, of self-doubt and insecurity. There were even actual storm clouds hanging over the capital in recent days, a literal echo of the nation’s state of mind.
- Azam Ahmed, After Trump’s Win, an Anxious Mexico Asks: What’s Next?, NYT Nov. 14, 2016


“Before hieroglyphics were deciphered,” Bruce Boucher writes in his astute review of “Egyptomania,” by Ronald H. Fritze (Dec. 4), “the reality of ancient Egypt was literally a closed book.”

Well, not quite: It was only figuratively a closed book. You don’t have to be a hard-core prescriptivist to oppose the loose way in which the word “literally” is so often used these days (after all, if “literally” stops meaning “literally” we don’t have another word in English that can take over this meaning). I’m sure I’m not the only reader who would hope to find the Book Review holding the line against this sloppy usage.
- Benjamin Friedman, Letter to the Editor, NYT, 12/29/2016


Pled instead of Pledged:

Bad Logic:

The W.H.O. guidelines set limits for two types of particles: fine particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter — less than a fraction of the width of a human hair — known as PM 2.5; and slightly larger particles that are smaller than 10 microns in diameter, known as PM10.
- Erica Goode, Europe Trails U.S. in Cutting Air Pollution, W.H.O. Says, NYT, May 12, 2016




New York Times journalist Jason Horowitz, after saying that Italian voters' rejection of Renzi's proposed constitutional changes resulted from their opinion of Renzi rather than concerns about the substance of the proposal, follows up with an example that contradicts that claim:

Ostensibly the vote was about arcane changes to Italy’s Constitution that would have streamlined government. ...
Ultimately, the substance of the reform mattered less than voters’ opinions of Mr. Renzi. In the past, personalizing politics had helped Mr. Renzi, a charismatic Florentine who came to power as a result of an internal Democratic Party coup in 2014. This time, it hurt him. ...
After casting his ballot against the reform on Sunday morning, Dario Cecchi, 37, said his vote had less to do with Mr. Renzi than the substance of the proposal.

Mr. Cecchi added that he was upset that Mr. Renzi had tied his political fate to the referendum, because he did not want him to step down.

- Jason Horowitz, Italy’s Premier, Matteo Renzi, Says He’ll Resign After Reform Is Rejected, NYT, Dec. 4, 2016


Mashed potatoes that are prepared in the store cost about $4 a pound, compared with $1 a pound for potatoes. But with plain old potatoes, you have to peel, cook and mash them yourself.

Yet the price disparity between the two is so great — some 400 percent — that when Mr. Leonard sees customers buying more prepared mashed potatoes, he stocks the shelves with more high-end food. Customers are feeling flush with cash.

- Paul Sullivan, After a Year of Faulty Predictions, 3 Approaches to Investing, NYT, Dec. 30, 2016
[The price disparity is the difference between the prices. If prepared mashed potatoes were $1.20 per pound, the disparity would be 20 cents, or 20%; likewise, the disparity here is 300%, not 400%. Sullivan's decision to tell readers the amount of the disparity suggests he thinks they're not smart enough to do the very simple math; his getting it wrong suggests he himself is either incompetent or extremely careless.]



Parents who went to private colleges and entered (or emerged from) the upper middle class hope to send their children to similar schools. But of course, most of those parents are just a job loss, a health scare or a nonremunerative career choice away from being able to save enough. ...
It’s a fine result, and they do not resent others who received more aid. But they lament the loss of a world in which public servants who have done well and played by the rules earn too much money to merit a break from their state and too little money to pay for scores of private institutions.
- RON LIEBER, As College Deadlines Near, Families Wonder What They Can Pay, NYT, APRIL 28, 2017


Who and Whom:

Netanyahu plans to replace Yaalon with the far-right Avigdor Lieberman, who boasts he could not care less what American Jews think about how Israel is behaving and a man whom, Haaretz reported, was only recently dismissed by Bibi’s team as “a petty prattler,” unfit to be even a military analyst, and whose closest brush with a real battle was dodging a “tennis ball.”
- Thomas L. Friedman, Netanyahu, Prime Minister of the State of Israel-Palestine, NYT, May 25, 2016


Confusion:

This was not to say that today's stable democracies, like the United States, France, or Switzerland, were not without injustice or serious social problems.
- Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, 1992, p. xi


Other:

They have failed to show a united front or proved capable of answering basic questions.
- Steven Erlanger, Leaders of ‘Brexit’ Campaign, Having Won, Turn to Managing Expectations, NYT, June 28, 2016


The timing of Mr. Deripaska’s diplomatic visits to the United States are notable because they began after the F.B.I. withdrew from a secret deal that allowed him into the country.
- BARRY MEIER and JESSE DRUCKER, Russian Once Tied to Trump Aide Seeks Immunity to Cooperate With Congress, NYT, MAY 26, 2017


In 2015, conservative activists pressured Indiana legislators to introduce the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill that would make it easier for Indiana business owners to discriminate against gays if it offended their religious beliefs.
- STEPHEN RODRICK, Do We Really Want Mike Pence to Be President?, NYT, MAY 26, 2017


Bad Writing By Writing Teachers

I study digital culture, and last year I taught a college writing course on selfies — a class that asked students to use selfies to study identity and diversity. ...
We studied the growing body of research of selfies that shows that these images,[sic] are not vehicles of vanity but contemporary modes of self-conscious communication. ...
Selfies are often written-off or devalued, however, because they’re seen as something that young women do — people who have long been devalued and underestimated.
My smart and self-conscious students understood the act of self-representation as a form of communication. Selfies didn’t just capture the self, they helped produce it. ...
Selfies reflect who you are, and shape it, too. So if we want our identity to be “voter,” we should want Instagram in the voting booth. ...
So we might not be changing minds with whatever ballot selfies we take. But we could change our own mind — or lift our mood. ...
So why not make an image of a self who is politically engaged?
- Mark Marino, The Case for Voting Booth Selfies, NYT, 11/08/2016. "Mark C. Marino is a scholar of digital media and an associate professor at the University of Southern California."


Bad Writing Reflecting Bad Thinking

A majority — well, not from the popular vote, which Hillary Clinton won — chose radical change over reasoned predictability.
- Timothy Egan, Resist Much, NYT, Nov. 11, 2016

How can Egan think a majority chose radical change when more than half voted against it? About half of those eligible bothered to vote, so even ignoring people too young to vote, only about a quarter of Americans chose radical change by voting for Trump. Yet Egan absurdly claims a majority chose radical change. (While election officials are still tabulating ballots, the 126 million votes already counted means about 55% of voting age citizens cast ballots this year. That measure of turnout is the lowest in a presidential election since 1996, when 53.5% of voting-age citizens turned out. - Gregory Wallace and Robert Yoon, Voter turnout at 20-year low in 2016, CNN, Nov. 12, 2016)


The following typo is interesting as an illustration of the carelessness of "first-rate" modern publications such as the New York Times. Limited attention to quality, perhaps resulting from limited funding, leads to superficial errors in writing as well as errors in factual content (see for instance Beta Explained Incorrectly in the Times).

Then President Obama nominated Flynn to become director of the Defense he began to unravel. He turned out to be a catastrophic manager. Colin Powell, former secretary of state, explained in hacked emails why Flynn was fired: “abusive with staff, didn’t listen, worked against policy, bad management.” Powell added that ever since, Flynn has been “right-wing nutty.”

- Nicholas Kristof, So Many Options, Yet Donald Trump Picks the Ugly, NYT, Nov. 19, 2016 [at 1pm PST on 11/19/2016. A few minutes ago (approximately 12:56 PST) I posted a suggested correction to Kristof's Facebook page (since I could not find a way to email him). Let's see how soon the typo is fixed.]


Checked again at 11:24pm PST, and found it fixed:

Then President Obama nominated Flynn to become director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and he began to unravel.


Implausibility

The New York Times article In a California Valley, Healthy Food Everywhere but on the Table says:

"... Maria Hernandez, 60, pays $520 a month for two tiny rooms, each about 18 feet across."
- Thomas Fuller, In a California Valley, Healthy Food Everywhere but on the Table, Nov. 23, 2016

A medium-size bedroom is about 12' by 12', or 144 square feet (see, for instance, "Room Sizes" at http://www2.d125.org/im/ACAD/pdf/room_sizes.pdf). For one of Maria's 18 feet across rooms to be the size of a medium-size bedroom, it would have to be only 144/18 = 8 feet wide, which is implausibly narrow, and even if so narrow it would still be of medium size (at least for a bedroom) rather than tiny. So it is implausible that each of her rooms is both 18 feet wide and tiny.

When this was pointed out to the author, his response was merely that the apartment was small:

The entire apartment is two rooms: the bedroom, kitchen, living room, etc. all compacted into two spaces. It was pretty small! -Thomas.


He seems unaware that a pretty small apartment or house might consist of two non-tiny rooms.


Inaccuracy:


A New York Times article headlined ‘It Won’t Happen,’ Donald Trump Says of North Korean Missile Test, says:

Faced with a threat from North Korea that it might soon test an intercontinental ballistic missile, President-elect Donald J. Trump took to Twitter on Monday to declare bluntly, “It won’t happen!”
- Maggie Haberman and David Sanger, ‘It Won’t Happen,’ Donald Trump Says of North Korean Missile Test, NYT, Jan. 2, 2017


In fact, what Trump posted on Twitter was:

North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!

The Times headline and report indicate that Trump said the intercontinental ballistic missile test wouldn't happen, whereas the straightforward way of interpreting Trump's tweet is that he said Korea would not develop a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. Developing such a weapon is very different from testing such a missile, so it is wrong to claim Trump said the testing wouldn't happen. Maybe that's what Trump had in mind, but it's not accurate to report that he said, of the missile test, "It won't happen."


The New York Times misleadingly reported the lethal dose for VX:

- GERRY DOYLE, What Is VX Nerve Agent? A Deadly Weapon, Rarely Seen, NYT, FEB. 24, 2017


It is implausible that the lethal dose when a substance is inhaled would be greater than the lethal dose via skin contact. According to a report on the effects of VX prepared for The National Academies,

- Principal Investigator Victor Miller, HEALTH EFFECTS OF PROJECT SHAD CHEMICAL AGENT: VX NERVE AGENT, The Center for Research Information, Inc., 2004


An LD50 or "lethal dose" of .04 mg/kg, meaning half of people will be killed by such a dose, equates to 3.2 milligrams for 80 kg, the approximate mean weight of an American adult. Thus the reported 10 mg appears high, but is arguably in the ballpark, especially if one notes that "as low as" suggests some estimates are higher, thinks of a "lethal dose" as one that will kill far more than half the people dosed, and ignores children and other people less substantial than adult Americans.

On the other hand, the claim that the lethal dose is "25 to 30 milligrams if inhaled" appears extremely inaccurate. For inhalation, lethal doses are normally expressed in terms of milligrams per cubic meter times minutes, or mg min/meter cubed. (According to Haber's Law, breathing a concentration of 10 mg/m^3 for 5 minutes is equivalent to breathing a concentration of 50 mg/meter cubed for 1 minute.) With a person at rest inhaling about 7.5 liters/minute and a person walking 2 mph inhaling about 12.5 liters/minute, we might reasonably assume a person typically breathes about 10 liters/minute. Thus, since there are 1000 liters in a cubic meter, a person who inhales a lethal dose by breathing a 36 mg/meter cubed mixture for one minute will inhale about 36/100 or .36 mg, nowhere near the "25 to 30 milligrams if inhaled" reported in the Times. As one would expect, this is far less than the lethal dose via skin contact of several milligrams.



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