Bench Memos

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Human Being v. Grammar Machine


Bruce Fein has a very good column in today’s Washington Times, picking apart a letter from Harriet Miers to then-Gov. George W. Bush, in which Miers opposed a bill reaching the governor’s desk. Fein convincingly demonstrates the weakness of the legal reasoning in Miers’s letter, but something else caught my eye.

We’ve been told that Miers became famous (or notorious) around the White House, in her first job as staff secretary, for meticulously correcting the grammar, punctuation, and spelling in memos, speech drafts, and the like, apparently to the frustration of others. (Taken by itself, this seemed to me to be one of the virtues for a person in that position.) But here is some of a quotation Fein pulls out of her 1995 letter to Bush: “For example, charging unconscionably high fees are prohibited . . .”

Aha! Can’t . . . stop . . . red . . . pen . . . of death! Sorry, 25 years of teaching college students to mind how they write has made me a little crazy, I suppose, but this is a classic subject-verb disagreement.

I have been abashed to confront my own goofs and gaffes in my published writings from time to time. We all miss mistakes in our own writing that we would see in that of others. (Hence, copy editors.) So Harriet Miers is human, not a perfectly tuned grammar machine. Nice to know, I guess.


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