Scratch That Its

As is often the case, the best part of yesterday’s “I’ll Show You ‘Subpar’” piece was tucked in a footnote. It certainly proved controversial, and, if you consider grammar and usage arguments to be splendid fun, it’s worth a deeper look.

I quoted this paragraph from Joe Nocera’s column in yesterday’s New York Times (emphasis added):

It’s hard to make a good smartphone — so hard, in fact, that no one really has it right yet. BlackBerrys are great at e-mail, but the phone is barely adequate and its Internet abilities are not very good at all. The Motorola Q crashes almost as often as the Treo. The Apple iPhone is terrific for music and media, but lousy for e-mail and phoning.

I added a “[sic]” after the “its” in the second sentence and added the following footnote:

Weird that The Times copy editors didn’t catch the mismatched plural “BlackBerrys” and singular “its” in the second sentence.

So far I’ve received around three dozen emails about this footnote — the overwhelming majority arguing that I was wrong, and that the usage in Nocera’s column was, in fact, correct.1

My argument is that the “its” refers to “BlackBerrys”, and thus should be the plural “their”:

BlackBerrys are great at e-mail, but the phone is barely adequate and their Internet abilities are not very good at all.

The argument from the majority of dissenting DF readers is that the “its” refers back to “the phone”, which is singular, and therefore correct.

I stand pat that the sentence is wrong; but I do agree that it is easily misread. The sentence as a whole is a mess, and rather than simply fixing the its/their mismatch, should have been rewritten completely. (E.g., one must assume that “Internet abilities” refers to web browsing, given that he’s already praised the BlackBerry’s email as “great”; email, obviously, is an “Internet ability”. And what’s with the word “abilities” anyway? “Features” or “capabilities” would be better. Etc.)

The problem with the idea that “its” refers to “the phone” is that what Nocera means by “the phone” is not “the BlackBerry gadget as a whole”, but rather “the portion of a BlackBerry device that serves as a phone”. In the context of the entire paragraph, it’s clear that what he’s arguing is that all smartphones are flawed, each of them good in some areas, but bad in others.2 When he writes “the phone is barely adequate”, he doesn’t mean the device as a whole is “barely adequate”, just the part that acts as a phone.

I’d suggest a re-write along the lines of:

BlackBerrys are great for e-mail, but their phone features are barely adequate and their web capabilities are not very good at all.

Or even better:

BlackBerrys are great for e-mail, but are barely adequate as phones and not very good at all for accessing the web.

If you’re still tempted to insist that “its” refers to “the phone” in the original sentence, then what does “the phone” refer to? The plural “BlackBerrys” in the first independent clause? That’s even worse.

  1. A handful of readers somehow came away with the impression that I was accusing Nocera and The Times of an itso; i.e. that I was arguing that the “its” should have been “it’s”. My guess is that these readers only saw the “[sic]” after the “its” and didn’t bother to read the footnote. And so they probably won’t bother reading this footnote, either. ↩︎

  2. Except for the Palm Treo, which Nocera pretty much trashes as bad in every regard. ↩︎