Monday, January 04, 2010

There's a Lot at Steak Here

Last night I was reading a selection from Ruth Reichl's book, "Garlic and Sapphires," about her experiences as the New York Times restaurant critic who dined in disguise to find out how the top restaurants treated a diner who was not the New York Times restaurant critic.

In the passage in question, she is talking about her humiliation at being called out in "the greenies"--the Times's in-house daily critique--for writing the sentence: "If you are a native New Yorker, steak is in your blood."

"The word police pounced," she writes.

"There, circled in the greenies, was the offending sentence. Next to it...was this comment: 'What if you are Chinese? Latino? Beware of generalizations.'"

I confess I don't see the problem. Ascribing certain traits to native New Yorkers seems fine to me, and doing so doesn't discount the possibility that others may share those traits. And isn't it understood that native New Yorkers can come from all cultural backgrounds? Sounds like someone is hyper-sensitive about inclusiveness.

But the topic of examination today actually comes in Reichl's next paragraph:

"Mortified, I went slinking through the newsroom, wishing I had never written those words. Why hadn't I simply said what I meant? Which was: 'Growing up in New York City, steak was an important part of my childhood.' It was the truth and no one could possibly have objected."

I object! Not to the validity of her steak-eating claims, but to the structure of that sentence. Here we encounter the dreaded dangling participle, which has made a fool out of many a well-meaning writer. The participial clause, "growing up in New York City," has become detached from its intended subject (Ruth Reichl) and has adhered itself to the steak, making it sound like it was the meat that grew up in New York.

The "native New Yorker" line may have raised the ire of the composer of the "greenies," but I submit it was the better choice, on both stylistic and grammatical grounds, than her imagined do-over.