An important New York Times correction about bird poop

August 20, 2014 • 8:18 am

I can’t resist posting this tw**t from Nick Bilton, a columnist for the New York Times (sent by reader Barry):

Screen Shot 2014-08-20 at 10.11.27 AM

And a screenshot of the correction in situ:

Screen Shot 2014-08-20 at 10.08.29 AM

And here’s the original error, appearing in a column called “My life in bicycles,” by Jennifer Finney Boylan:

I prefer exercising at least two miles away from any other human being. For me, biking is a solitary activity. In the Kennebec Highlands, on my mountain bike, I pedal past Kidder Pond, up to the blueberry barrens high atop Vienna Mountain. From there, I watch bald eagles and ospreys, and other birds, whose poop, owing to their diet of berries, stains the gray rocks purple. Sometimes I’ve run into deer and porcupines, and on one memorable occasion, a moose. Another time, I lay with my back against a tree, watching a beaver build a dam in Boody Pond.

In fact, the passage seems ambiguous, for the purple poop might be attributed to the “other birds” rather than the eagles and ospreys.  However, and perhaps a grammarian can weigh in here, the common between “and other birds” and “whose poop” might imply that eagles, ospreys, and “other birds” are a set, all producing purple poop. It would have been less ambiguous without that comma. Where’s Pinker when we need him?


29 thoughts on “An important New York Times correction about bird poop

  1. First you talk about Catholics, now you’re on to birdsh*t. Think communion and wafers.

    In the immortal words of Big Bang’s Penny:

    “Holy crap on a cracker”

  2. The original essay didn’t have the “and other birds” in it – that’s the corrected version. But the original essay is exactly that, an essay about the joys of bicycling alone, not any kind of factual piece about anything but her emotions. She may love watching birds as she bikes past, but she didn’t feel the need to learn anything much about them…

  3. Maslow would label this discussion the expression of meta-needs, the kinds of needs one develops when other, more fundamental, needs are met. Striving to refine our intellectual capabilities, for example, is a meta-need expression.

    The expression of meta-needs, in part, is what defines the self-actualizer.

  4. I would think the poop only applies to the other birds. No one would apply the poop to the trees and clouds in this sentence: “From there, I watch the trees and clouds, and birds, whose poop, owing to their diet of berries, stains the gray rocks purple.”

    Then again, this may be more a result of context than it is lack of ambiguity in the sentence structure.

  5. How annoying in the first place. Delighted that such a stupid was error pointed out.

    I’m more interested, though, in how she could “lay with [her] back against a tree.”

          1. You are correct.
            Chickens lay eggs.
            And Bob Dylan knew he was incorrect when he sang: “Lay lady lay, lay upon my big brass bed”.
            He wasn’t talking about chickens!

  6. I was distracted by this sentence* describing the bike ride:

    Sometimes I’ve run into deer and porcupines….

    I thought that would be rather painful for all concerned.

    *because I am a pedant and smart ass that is easily distracted, even by grammar.

  7. Somebody said above that is the corrected sentence, and it reads OK to me as corrected, if the line had meant all the birds are purple poppers, it would have not had the “and” between “Eagles and Ospreys”, it would have read “Eagles, Ospreys, and other birds” (+/- Oxford comma). “Eagles and Ospreys, and other birds, whose..”

    it seems the comma after other birds also instructs us to read that clause as relating just to the other birds, whereas no comma after “other birds” might lead us to read “whose” as everyones. I know nothing of grammar. That is how I would parse those.

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