Poor Sarah Palin.
If only she had a better grasp of grammar, she could have saved herself a lot of legal fees. Instead she’s muddling along as one of nearly 50 middling candidates in a battle for Alaska’s sole U.S. House seat — and in court, she’s already a loser. Again.
On May 31, a judge ruled against Palin’s bid for a new libel trial against the New York Times. At issue was its 2017 editorial that she claimed drew a connection between a map that the noted hunting enthusiast’s political action committee had circulated — which depicted crosshairs over certain targeted electoral districts — and the assassination attempt of Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. The editorial read, in part: “In 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in a supermarket parking lot, grievously wounding Representative Gabby Giffords and killing six people, including a nine-year-old girl, the link to political incitement was clear.”
Soon after the editorial ran, the Times issued a correction, saying its editorial “incorrectly stated that a link existed between political rhetoric and the 2011 shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords. In fact, no such link was established.”
Despite that, according to Palin’s legal team, the damage was done, so she filed a libel suit against the paper. She lost that suit in February, with the jury ruling that it was a mistake, and not defamation. In the May ruling, a U.S. District Court judge said she hadn’t produced any evidence to merit a new trial. Womp womp.
The Times could have avoided all this trouble — and we could have been spared the menace of treading dangerously close to gutting libel laws that would have chilled journalistic freedom across the country — if it hadn’t messed with a sloppy linking verb.
Linking verbs connect a subject with a predicate that completes the sentence’s meaning: “He seems happy,” “She is a firefighter,” “That outfit looks stupid.” They’re very simple and very necessary, which is why everyone learns about them in school, even if they then immediately confuse linking verbs with helping verbs (which connect with another verb, such as “I am leaving”).
The trouble with linking verbs is that they can be maddeningly imprecise, as in the aforementioned New York Times editorial: “the link to political incitement was clear.”
Passive voice gets a lot of (deserved) flak for absolving responsibility — particularly from this Grammarian. The classic “mistakes were made” example doesn’t specify who made those mistakes. But linking verbs can do the same, and in a sneakier way that trips up even seasoned Times editors.
The line “the link to political incitement was clear” is grammatically correct, but it doesn’t specify who or what is doing the inciting. If the sentence had read something like, “Palin’s PAC mailer incited gunman Jared Lee Loughner to open fire in a supermarket parking lot” — with the action verb incite — editors would have been more likely to notice that was blatantly false and flag it before it went to print. As the defense claimed (and the jury agreed) in the original trial, the Times’ rapid correction suggests that once the paper realized what it had said, it immediately clawed back that statement.
But the mushy linking verb was meant that editors missed the line until it was too late to avoid a costly lawsuit, multiple judges, and a lot of headaches.
Palin might have made a legal argument that the august New York Times should use its verbs better, but a grammatical position might be a tall order for the Alaskan whose malapropisms and inscrutable syntax have literally filled a book. Instead, for someone who claims to love hunting, it was just another misfire.
The Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and disjunctive conjunctions to firstname.lastname@example.org.