Friday, October 9, 2009

NewsSpeak - It's Kinda Like English

I think it started last year, around Christmas time. The local electronic media began using the word “closure” instead of “closing”, when doing stories about the Janesville GM plant. In a January blizzard, they talked about “road closures”. And this week, these same folks talked about flu-related school “closures” in Wisconsin Dells.

Presumably, they’ll change the tabs on their websites to inform us about weather-related school “closures” this winter - rather than school “closings”.

The latest jargon to creep into news writing is “Officer-Involved Shooting”. My YourNews colleague John Karcher, the former Channel 3 news anchor, and I have had a few good laughs about this latest example of “NewsSpeak”.

From 1971 until 2008 I was paid - and often paid very well - to try and teach news broadcasters and writers how to use the English language. After nearly four decades of ramming my head into this wall, I have drawn a couple conclusions. First, it’s a fool’s errand. People who are poor writers and speakers almost never think they are. Second, broadcast news writers who are poor at their craft almost always aggressively defend their poor writing, when it‘s pointed out.

I’ve left newsrooms from California to Florida shaking my head, pocketing a large check, and knowing that my hard work and best efforts accomplished very little. Now, with the slow death of local news, budgets for training and coaching have dried up.

This week it also became apparent that far too many of our local broadcasters don’t know that “postpone” and “cancel” mean two different things. One local radio station informed us that the big football game scheduled for tonight between Wisconsin Dells and Adams-Friendship had been “cancelled”. Nope. It was postponed. They’ll play the game when the kids feel better.

Same thing with the big monster truck show that was supposed to be here this weekend. One local TV station said the event was postponed - and then, in the very next sentence, said it was cancelled because of poor ticket sales. Actually, the newscaster said it was “due to” poor ticket sales, but teaching newswriters the correct use of “due to” and “because of” is another fool’s errand.

Broadcasters say “drunk driver” 99% of the time; while print folks say “drunken driver” 99% of the time. (The latter is correct.) Print folks still have editors who catch these things. Broadcasters don’t, and even veteran anchors who should know better, simply recite what’s on the prompter. Like the one a few months ago who said a robber “ran off on foot”. Is there another way to run?

At least she didn’t say “fled on foot in an unknown direction with an undetermined amount of United States currency” - the way cops write these things in their incident reports.

A doctor knows what acute postprandial eructation is, but they’ll still call it a loud belch.

And there’s the Lennox commercial running on TV now which informs me I can contact them “for all my comfort needs”. I’ll notify my wife and the Guinness Brewery that their services are no longer needed.

You don’t want to be anywhere near me when the local news is on. I’m obnoxiously critical.

And if that ESPN announcer welcomes me IN to SportsCenter tomorrow morning, I’ll reach through the TV screen and wring his neck!


  1. The news crew at WISC must read your blog. On tonight's 6:00 news, during a news story the background slide had the words "drunk drivers" but Susan Siman's news copy used the workds "drunken drivers".

  2. When I was a radio production director, I used to cringe at the line "make blank your headquarters for all your blanking needs," which is the emptiest phrase in advertising. Sad thing was there were clients who wanted to use it in their ads. Dozens of them over the years.

    I enjoy your blog. Keep up the good work.

  3. All right, all right! I've whipped out my three grammar books to look up the distinction (which I don't think I ever learned) between "because of" and "due to". I never learned it because I flunked out of my senior year English class after my teacher took a dim view the essay I'd written giving my views as to why teaching English in high school was a waste of time...:

    * "English Grammar", Whitney & Lockwood, copyright 1894

    * "Practical English Handbook 11th edition", Watkins, Dillingham, and Hiers, copyright 2001

    * "A Dictionary of Modern English Usage", Fowler, copyright 1965

    Nothing in Whitney & Lockwood.

    Fowler has this:

    due. Has due to, using the weapon of ANALOGY, won a prescriptive right to be treated as though it had passed, like OWING TO, into a compound preposition?...

    The prepositional use of owing to is some 150 years old, but of a similar use of due to there is not a vestige in the OED (1897); in the 1933 Supp. it is said to be 'frequent in U.S. use', and in 1964 the COD tersely dismisses it as 'incorrect'. The original edition of the present Dictionary said this: 'It is now as common as can be, though only, if the view taken in this article is correct, among the illiterate; that term is here to e taken as including all who are unfamiliar with good writers, and are consequently unaware of any idiomatic difference between Owing to his age he was unable to compete and Due to his age he was unable to compete. Perhaps the illiterates will beat idiom; perhaps idiom will beat the illiterates; our grandsons will know.' Now, when this usage is still 'as common as can be' and is freely employed by BBC announcers, it seems clear that idiom, though still resisting stoutly, is fighting a losing battle. The offending usage has indeed ecome literally part of the Queen's English. Due to inability to market their grain, prairie farmers have been faced for some time with a serious shortage of sums to meet their immediate needs. (Speech from the Throne on the opeing of the Canadian Parliament by Elizabeth II, 14 Oct. 1957.)


    Fowler doesn't have a specific entry for "because of". In his entry for "because" is this:

    2. Because following a negative clause is often a cause of ambiguity. Does the because clause diclaim a reason why a thing was done or does it give a reason why a thing was not done? He did not oppose the motion because he feared public opinion. Does this mean that it was not fear of public opinion that made him oppose, or that fear of public opinion made him refrain from opposing?


    Watkins, Dillingham, and Hiers have a nice concise explanation:

    Due to Use because of instead of due to in a prepositional phrase modifying a verb.

    DO NOT USE due to: The game was canceled due to the hurricane. (modifies a verb)

    USE because of: The game was canceled because of the hurricane.

    USE due to or because of: The cancellation of the game was due to the hurricane. (modifies a noun)

    That last bit is interesting: the use of either construction is allowed in modifying a noun.

    I shall watch myself in future.

    Steve Erbach
    Neenah, WI

  4. By the way, Colonel, my apologies for the misspellings and misplaced words in my comment. I burn with shame!

  5. Sort of late to the party, but I have a list and I HATE HATE HATE some of these words, especially now that the general public are using them.

    These drive me up the wall and make me want to whip out a red pen:

    Killings (WTF happened to the word "Murder"?)
    Any word using "icle" that doesn't need it

    It isn't related to newsspeak, but I do hate how people use words related to the comic and animation industry improperly. I particularly like how morons will use the word "animation" for a still sketch by a cartoon penciler. It isn't animation, it isn't a series of hand drawings with a slight image change to create movement. It's a still drawing. ARRRG!

  6. Most of these examples don't grate my ear, because they are only mistakes. The Newsspeak I loathe is born of misguided teaching and coached gimmicks, not lack of learning. Some of its rules are: (1) avoid the past tense; (2) drop "is", "if", "and", "it's", pronouns and other one-syllable words, above all prepositions, or replace them with longer words and phrases ("constitute" or "is", "in terms of" for "in", "simply" or "just"); (3) cap your sentences with "as well"; (4) liberally use 4- to 5- syllable words that sound learned, but are understood by all (e.g., "opportunity", "necessarily", "parTICular", "scenario", "available"); (5) always be intensifying!! ("every single", "single-most", "first-ever", "abbbsolutely", "huuuuuge", "actually" in every other sentence); (6) avoid complete sentences--verbs are disposable (except trendy ones, often converted nouns (e.g., "experience", "impact", "dialogue"); (7) if you must use a verb, make it a participle ("I actually speaking Newsspeak at this particular point in time"). There are many other such rules, passed down from who knows where and adopted with no apparent dissent by all the broadcast media, even those which fancy themselves as purveyors of independent thought. If this is what you taught, would you kindly post the "memo from corporate" or broadcast school stylebook which spawned this brave new English 2.0? Brian