By MERVIN BLOCK
December 6, 2005 -Poynter Online
Readers write. They challenge what I’ve written, raise questions about words, complain about what they’ve heard on newscasts. So far, no threats.
Rex Bossert, editor-in-chief of National Law Journal, e-mailed me about the widespread use of hot-button issue. He said it’s not only a cliché but is also meaningless. And he asked, What is a hot button? I don’t know. Maybe the language heavyweights haven’t weighed in on it because they don’t see it as a hot-button issue.
David M. Lawrence, a journalist in Mechanicsville, Virginia, wrote that tsunami is both singular and plural. I told him I use tsunami only as a singular, adding, “If anyone objects, I’ll say, “So tsu me.” To which he retorted, “If they do tsu you, you can throw a Hsu at them.”
Ray Weiss, the first executive producer of the “MacNeil/Lehrer Report,” told of hearing this news promo not too long ago on WNBC-TV, New York City:
“The oldest woman in America gives birth to twins at eleven.”
But she wasn’t the oldest woman in America; she was the oldest to give birth. And she didn’t do it at 11.
Dick Sutliff, a former anchor at WGN Radio, Chicago, asked me why newscasters often say they’re sorry to report the death of someone when they really mean they’re sorry that person died? I’m not sorry Dick asked, but I just don’t know.
Ron R. Rahorn reported a redundancy he hadn’t run into before: nocturnal thunderstorms tonight. Ron, an academic director at the Defense Information School, says he doesn’t consider nocturnal a word most people would use in everyday—or everynight–conversation. And he asked, “Am I on or off target?” Right on.
An announcement in my mailbox from California State University, Chico, usually just called Chico, made me wonder: does California also have a Harpo and Groucho?
Mark Stevenson, senior news editor at MSNBC.com, pointed out something I had overlooked when I dissected this script:
“Now this special ops team member was on the ground last week when the helicopter carrying 16 other special ops team members were looking for he or she and their team members there on the ground during this.” (CNN, 4 p.m., July 3, 2005.)
My comment on that script, included in the article “Even Networks Mangle and Strangle Language”: For he or she? For is a preposition, so that phrase should be “for him or her.” As for the last this, this what? Specify. Their and there so close are confusing to the ear. On the ground? Where else would searchers be looking, in the sky?
Stevenson asked: “What is the antecedent of their? It must be members, but getting the construction to work makes my head hurt. Their desperately wants helicopter to be its antecedent, but no. Helicopter were looking?” No, that script won’t fly.
Another reader sent me a fistful of scripts he intercepted before they could be broadcast. Here are a few choice excerpts from his TV station in a medium-size Midwest market:
“We begin with an ongoing breaking news situation.” No need for We begin with; as soon as an anchor starts talking, we know she has begun. If the event is ongoing, how can the news also be breaking? Situation is usually a hollow word that can be deleted. As George Carlin said, “Everything is a situation. We’re in one now.”
A case for the redundancy police:
“A special honor for former first lady Betty Ford for her public service.
V/O: “The 84-year-old Mrs. Ford was awarded this year’s Gerald R. Ford Medal of [should be for] Distinguished Public Service, an award given to individuals recognized for their public service in the private or public sectors.” Mrs. Ford won the Ford medal? Looks like an inside job.
“Hurricane Rita remains a tropical storm at this time, but forecasters expect her to become a hurricane today.” Huh?
Gary Hallock told me of a line in an NPR story about the homeless: “Squatting on private and public property is a long-standing tradition in Brazilian society.” (Aug. 23, 2004.)
Squatting and standing?
Jamie Oliver of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, an engineering technician, wrote: “I find myself scouring the [crawls] on my local…stations. It’s like watching a car wreck. I know it’s going to be ugly, but I’ve got to look anyway. This example appeared…on my local NBC affiliate…: ‘…has been charged with justifiable homocide in the death of….’ What does that mean? I think maybe…the person was justifiably liable in killing a homosexual. And yes, they ran it again and again and again.”
A reader in Australia wrote: “NBC ‘Nightly’ had a doozy of an intro today (9-12) to their sixth story, on the new chief justice: ‘At any other time, this following story would have been our lead story….’ Except it was not, because there were clearly five better stories!” (The reader said he didn’t want to be identified.)
Another Aussie mocked NBC’s “Nightly News” and its fondness for tonight: “A couple from tonight’s broadcast tonight:
“‘NBC News In Depth tonight, some horrifying revelations tonight about the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.’ Two in one sentence, a record even for them.” The Aussie, Rohan Bridge, a TV news producer, then quoted another anchor lead-in from that night’s newscast:
“Then there is Iraq tonight. You’ve heard all the talk about the upcoming vote on the constitution there. Well, tonight there is a compromise, which means this won’t be the last vote. They can vote again in the spring. In that nation, this is a breakthrough, as we hear tonight [Oct. 12] from NBC’s….” Bridge added sarcastically: “Back to one [tonight] per sentence. Much better.”
Ed Baumann of Kenosha, Wisconsin, a former Chicago newspaperman, said he heard WLS radio of Chicago announce (Oct. 28) a rally honoring the Chicago White Sox would be held at LaSalle Street and Wabash Avenue. But LaSalle and Wabash don’t intersect; so I told Ed I’d meet him at Oak and Polk—two other parallel Chicago streets that don’t meet, either. (But Ed and I do meet on occasion. And then it is an occasion.)
After I wrote that speakers stand on a podium and speak at a lectern, Arun K. Das, a newswriter and copy editor at WNYW-TV, New York City, said some dictionaries list lectern as a synonym for podium. All I can say, Arun, is that they’re errin’. Yes, even my favorite, the American Heritage Dictionary, offers lectern, as a synonym for podium. But in Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner says the use of podium to mean lectern “once widely condemned as a misuse, has become commonplace.” Even so, he warns, “Careful writers should avoid it.”
Speaking of avoid, let’s speak of avoid. And if you ever use a transition like that and I hear about it, I’ll avoid you. After I quoted the New York Times stylebook in an article, “Avoid the reason is because and the reason why,” William Weinbaum, a producer at ESPN, wrote that his mother, Alice, said avoid in that sentence should be do not use. She said it’s a case of prohibition, not volition. Prohibition makes reason is because and reason why absolute no-no’s, not just something to steer clear of.
Weinbaum, no mean grammarian himself, is an owl-eared and eagle-eyed spotter. He told me that on CBS’s Army-Navy football telecast Dec. 3, the color commentator criticized Army’s decision to punt rather than run a play against Navy on fourth-and-one, then said (three times), “I would’ve went for it.” Would’ve went is a barbarism. What he should’ve gone for is coaching in English.
Another spotter, Michael Daniels, a broadcast writing coach, alerted me to a line uttered by a CNN correspondent at 10 p.m., Oct. 4: “Now it’s decision time for the 14-thousand people who lived here before the storm: rebuild or raze.” Raze is a homonym, a word that sounds like another word but has a different meaning. Raze means to tear down, but it sounds like raise, which is an antonym, a word that means just the opposite. So raze is not an air word.
Mike, who teaches at the University of Southern California’s journalism school, also told me about two stories he heard Sept. 28 on KNX NewsRadio. The first story was about the appearance of the former FEMA director Michael Brown at a House hearing, where he was called “clueless.” The next story began, “The mayor of New Orleans calls him a hero.” Sounds as though there’s a difference of opinion about Brown. But it turns out the second story was about the city’s police chief. That’s one reason I advise writers not to use a pronoun (he or him, she or her) before using the name it refers to.
The danger of using big words on the air, especially when you don’t know what they mean, is illustrated by an announcer’s remark at a recent concert broadcast by WQXR, New York City, owned by the New York Times Company (The Times owns the FM station, not New York City).
The audience went wild over the piano soloist, and my correspondent, the author Janet Hays, told me the announcer reported the cheers, the bows and the flowers, and said the pianist was responding to “the opprobrium of the audience.” Whatever the announcer might have meant, it probably wasn’t “disgrace arising from exceedingly shameful conduct.”
Charles Fair, who teaches journalism at Central Missouri State University, wrote, “The newscaster filling in for Paul Harvey on ABC Radio today (Sept. 14) said the two people who operated the [nursing home] in New Orleans [that] let patients drown have been charged with murder. Actually, the charge is negligent homicide.” So the newscaster was wrong. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says, “Reserve murder for a crime that has been so labeled by the authorities in a warrant, a charge or a conviction.”
A while back, Chris J. Berry, president and general manager of WMAL, Washington, D.C., sent me an AP story that began, “A feeling of normalcy is returning to Capitol Hill….” Chris mused: “I wonder what ‘normalcy” feels like. And how, exactly, does it return?”
A Delaware newsman who asked for anonymity wrote “As a pseudo-protégé of one of your disciples and former students, Allan Loudell, I tend to agree with the vast majority of your observations and criticisms. But I’m a tad puzzled by your criticism of the use of the phrase “jerry-rigged.” It may be true that it’s not a word, or the proper use of the combination of words, but I have never, ever heard anyone say “jury-rigged.” “Jerry-rigged” is the term used most often in daily conversation. So, if we are taught to write conversationally, if we are taught to write the way people speak, then shouldn’t we use the terms found in everyday speech?”
I asked him whether I could quote him, and he replied, “You can use my question, but I prefer you not use my name (you never know what will pop up on Google). Also, just so you know, the online version of the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, lists jerry-rig as a word.”
I told him that I had just checked the paper edition of the American Heritage, and sure enough, jerry-rig is there, too—besides the standard jerry-built and jury-rigged. Of the 22+ dictionaries accessible at OneLook.com, only three include jerry-rig. I didn’t tell him that if jerry-rig pops up in his daily conversations, he’s hanging out with the wrong crowd. But I did say, “I doubt that any careful writer would ever use jerry-rig—except to deride it.”
Owen Conflenti, an anchor at KPRC-TV, Houston, asked me whether to call the guerrillas in Iraq rebels or insurgents. And he also asked about using homicide bombers instead of suicide bombers. Here, in part, is what I told him:
“My best desk dictionary, American Heritage, defines insurgent as someone who rises in revolt against established authority, especially a government. The AHD says a rebel is someone who opposes by force an ‘established government or ruling authority.’
“The New Oxford American Dictionary says a rebel is ‘someone who rises in armed resistance against an established government or ruler.’
“As far as I can tell, rebel and insurgent are more or less synonymous. [Yes, ‘more or less’ is my escape hatch.] I do think that wherever insurgent has been used in connection with Iraq, a writer could say rebel. (Lawyers would call it a distinction without a difference.)
“I’ve run across several articles in the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor where the text used only insurgent but the heads used rebel. That tells us that several copy editors thought they mean the same thing or almost the same thing. [The lead story on P. 1 of the New York Times, Dec. 2, 2005, ran below this two-column head: “Profusion of Rebel Groups/Helps Them Survive in Iraq.” The 1,617-word story from Baghdad did not use rebel, although it did use rebellion. You know who stages rebellions: rebels.]
“Newspaper writers and newscasters have been using insurgent consistently. The U.S. gov’t talks about insurgents and counter-insurgency, so those are words listeners have become familiar with. I don’t recall ever hearing a newscaster calling the insurgents in Iraq rebels. If you suddenly started calling those guys rebels, some listeners might be confused and think they’re [different fighters].”
Although I prefer five-cent words to five-dollar words, I would be inclined to stick with insurgent. (Another escape hatch: would be inclined.)
I also told Owen: “All bombers, or almost all bombers, want to kill people. That makes every bomber who kills someone a homicide bomber. Not all bombers want to kill themselves. So suicide bomber is the preferred term for [those who set out to kill other people by killing themselves], preferred, that is, in the English-speaking world. As far as I know, the only newspaper or broadcast people who use homicide bomber are the Fox folks.”
An old friend, Steve Grant, an anchor at KY3, Springfield, Missouri, rates a salute for his observations on newswriting, too many to squeeze in here.
Peter Zollman, a consultant in interactive media, asks, “Can you get people to do away with the overblown, incessant hype about middling stories that are relatively meaningless in the overall scheme of life?”
Peter, I keep trying.