After reporting Neil Neches's insertion of the semicolon in NY subway placards and explaining how it came to be, author Sam Roberts presents comments by various authorities on grammar and punctuation. The section reads:
Lynne Truss, author of “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” called it a “lovely example” of proper punctuation.
Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, praised the “burgeoning of punctuational literacy in unlikely places.”
Allan M. Siegal, a longtime arbiter of New York Times style before retiring, opined, “The semicolon is correct, though I’d have used a colon, which I think would be a bit more sophisticated in that sentence.”
The linguist Noam Chomsky sniffed, “I suppose Bush would claim it’s the effect of No Child Left Behind.”Let's look at the structure of these paragraphs:
name of authority / identification of profession / verb / commentAs you'll notice, there is a bit of variation here within the parallel structure: in the last paragraph, Roberts uses a restrictive appositive--"the linguist"--instead of following Chomsky's name with a modifier. He could have easily written "Noam Chomsky, noted linguist and philosopher…" Why didn't he? I think one answer might be that Chomsky is such a towering figure, Roberts felt there was no reason to identify him beyond "the linguist." You'll notice too that out of all the verbs paired with the authorities, the most condescending follows Chomsky's name.
Pronounced and called are neutral in tone, praised is positive, and opined is, in this context, overly formal, suggesting, as sniffed does, something about the authority's character. Opined and sniffed comment on Siegel and Chomsky, respectively, just as their statements comment on Neches. Roberts selected these verbs with care--this is what we mean by diction--and we can see that his sense of humor emerged when he got to the last two authorities.
How should the copyeditor handle something like the last paragraph? I would say that he or she could assume that given the parallelism of the first four paragraphs, Roberts was making a deliberate stylistic choice. Was it a good choice, though, one that should be respected and allowed to stand? I would say yes, but I wonder if Eleanor Gould might disagree…