Sunday, July 7, 2013

Can't Nobody Speak Good English No More?

I guess it was when I heard NBC News reporter Dennis Murphy say “one-year anniversary” on a report Saturday night.  This man – nearly my age – went to an exclusive prep school (Georgetown Prep  in Maryland) and is a graduate of Williams College. So he is at least partially educated.  I think it was hearing an experienced network reporter like Murphy say something as stupid as “one-year anniversary” that set me off on this, my latest rant about the decline of appropriate grammar, usage, and structure of the English spoken (and written) by news broadcasters.

Please have mercy for my wife, who must listen to me rant about this stuff just about every day.  And don’t get me wrong –I know the difference between conversational and formal English and am a huge advocate of the conversational form, even in news reports.

Let’s face it: nobody says “fled on foot”.  Everybody says “ran off” or “ran away”.  Yet you hear that usage just about every day on broadcast news, where the writer simply transposed the phrase from the police report.  Somewhere in my dusty old consultant report files, I have a piece of broadcast news copy which contains the phrase “fled on foot in an unknown direction with an undetermined amount of United States Currency”.  In English, that’s usually said “ran off with a bunch of money”, yet the young person who wrote the story (or, more appropriately, plagiarized the police report) was capable of speaking perfectly acceptable conversational English – while NOT on the air or writing news copy.

That’s an example of what I used to call the “process-product” fault – getting so wrapped up in the process of writing news copy that you forget the goal is to produce copy which will be easily understood by the “end-user”.

A report on a Green Bay TV station a few days ago told of “a child who was injured by a firework”.  I’m not sure how that tortured usage came to be.

Here’s something that comes up several times every summer in Madison.  It’s a constant source of belly-laughs to hear the local newsies deal with “Concerts on the Square”.  There are six of them, every Wednesday night from mid-June to the end of July.  It’s as though the plural noun can never be changed or altered: “The Concerts on the Square are postponed tonight due to (and, of course, it should be “because of”) bad weather”.  Wouldn’t it be simpler to say “Tonight’s Concert on the Square is postponed because of bad weather”? 

These are the kind of folks who would never say “physics are the hardest subject I ever took in High School” but can’t deal with deconstructing a simple plural noun.  And let’s not even open the can of worms about those who say things like “I’m going to the Brewer game tonight”.

If Journalism were truly a profession, rather than an occupation, you’d have to pass some sort of test before being allowed to inflict news on the general public.  I’ve often said if someone were serious about Journalism, they’d take a lot of courses in English composition to learn the craft of properly using our language. 

Imagine what general medicine would be like if doctors didn’t have to take and pass many courses in anatomy.  Or what general aviation would be like if pilots didn’t have to understand the physics of powered flight.  Or if you went to a service garage where the mechanics knew a lot about engines, but nothing about transmissions.  Or a public school band director who knew a great deal about playing brass instruments, but nothing about reeds or strings.

What I’m getting at is that so many people who are presumed to be professional communicators seem to know so little about the fundamentals of English.  They couldn’t diagram a sentence if you asked.  They have no understanding about subtleties like active versus (or, as the young folks say, “verse”) passive voice.  They’ve never heard of terms like misplaced modifier or dangling participle. They wouldn’t know a relative pronoun from a reflexive pronoun.

I realize this battle was lost a long time ago, and the pushback I would get during my consulting days usually consisted of some form of “you don’t need to be an auto mechanic to be a good driver; I don’t need to know what makes it tick, I just need to know how to operate it”; or “ya, well, the Beatles couldn’t read music, but they sure created a lot of damn good songs”.  Depending on my level of frustration I would occasionally reply with something like “if you could write news as well as John Lenon and Paul McCartney could write songs, your boss wouldn’t have paid me to come here and try to teach you this stuff”.

People who say things like “it’s my parents’ 35-year anniversary tomorrow” would never say “my mom is celebrating her 56-year birthday tomorrow”.  But a veteran professional communicator like Dennis Murphy who says something as stupid as “one-year anniversary” needs retraining.  That kind of crap is for the young folks.


  1. O tempora, o mores!

    How's it feel to be a really OLD curmudgeon?

    1. Yah, I know...approaching the big Six-Five. Things will continue to get worse until I croak.

  2. A pet peeve of mine is misuse of the word "myself." I frequently hear people say, "Join Bob and myself for tonight's broadcast." Presumably because they think "Bob and me" is incorrect, which it is not.

    1. ...or, "she and him will have the latest at 6".

  3. These all pale when compared to the breathless sports-readers proclaiming "First-Ever State Championships!!!!!!!! U RA RA!


  4. My five-year mission is: To boldly go where no writer has gone before...,

    Bob Keith, Pesident, Split Infinitive League

    1. Perhaps the most famous split infinitive of all time, Bob.

  5. Colonel,

    Since you mentioned "dangling participle", this comes from a friend in Germany:

    Sex And Good Grammar

    On his 70th birthday, a man received a present from his wife: a gift certificate for a consultation with an Indian medicine man who lived on a nearby reservation. The medicine man was rumoured to have a simple but effective cure for erectile dysfunction.

    The man went to the reservation to see the medicine man. The old Indian gave him a small bottle of potion; but he warned, "This is a powerful medicine. You take only a teaspoonful, and then say '1-2-3.' When you do, you will become more manly than you have ever been in your life, and you can perform for as long as you want."

    The man thanked the old Indian; but as he walked away, he turned and asked, "How do I stop the medicine from working?"

    "Your partner must say '1-2-3-4,'" he responded, "but when she does, the medicine will not work again until the next full moon."

    The man was very eager to see if it worked. He went home, showered, shaved, took a spoonful of the medicine, and then invited his wife to join him in the bedroom. When she came in, he took off his clothes and said, "1-2-3!"

    Immediately, he was the manliest of men. His wife was excited and began throwing off her clothes. Just as they were getting down to business, she asked, "Honey, what was the 1-2-3 for?"

    And that is why we should never end our sentences with a preposition , because we could end up with a dangling participle.

    The Town Crank

  6. feeling really happy ...
    it helps me alot for improving my english to gr8 extends.learn english language
    thanks for posting this blogs