Even Networks Mangle and Strangle Language
Writing in plain English requires the writer to know plain English. But English has been taking a pasting, even on network newscasts. Some recent assaults:
"More than anything, he cared about the men he led, and they all got home safely, all but he." ("CBS Evening News," July 5, 2005.) But in that sentence means except, making it a preposition. So he must be in the objective case: "all but him."
"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.) 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?
"And that determination also extends to finding whomever is responsible for the massacre here…." ("CBS Evening News," July 8, 2005.) Whoever, not whomever. Deciding which to use is determined by its being the subject of the following verb, not by its being the object of a preceding verb or preposition.
"It is laying there on the ground." (CNN, 4 p.m., July 10, 2005.) It was lying on the ground. Lie means "to repose" or "to occupy a place"; lay means "put down" or "place." The correspondent should lay a grammar book on his desk and read it, not just let it lie there.
"Lacking the proper steel plating to protect soldiers from enemy mines and rocket-propelled grenades, they had been jerry-rigged with plywood and sandbags." (CBS, "60 Minutes," July 17, 2005.) Jerry-rigged? No such word. Jury-rig, according to the print version of the American Heritage Dictionary, means "to rig or assemble for temporary emergency use." Jerry-build is "to build shoddily, flimsily and cheaply." So the correspondent was guilty of mixing and mashing.
"If that doesn't work, they have jerry-rigged a hacksaw normally used for onboard repairs." (ABC's "Good Morning America," Aug. 3, 2005.) Mangling of jury-rig seems contagious. But rigging a jury is criminal.
"Inside the medical hospitals of Iraq." (CNN, 4 p.m., July 24, 2005.) Medical hospitals? Fortunately, that tease made clear that the story wouldn't be about archaeological, geological or mythological hospitals.
"Killen [convicted in Mississippi that day] could face charges of up to 20 years in prison for each count of manslaughter." (ABC's "World News Tonight," June 21, 2005.) Charges? Charges are accusations, and after Killen was convicted, the charges were no longer pending. Better: "Killen could face a sentence of up to 20 years in prison for each count of manslaughter."
"Hurricane Emily is on a collision course with Mexico's Yucatan peninsula…." ("CBS Evening News," July 17, 2005.) Peninsulas don't move. Only moving objects collide.
"Late tonight we learned of the latest price tag for continuing the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan…." ("NBC Nightly News," Jan. 24, 2005.) Since when is 6:30 p.m. late tonight? As for price tag, tear it off. Instead, use cost, price or something other than the cliché price tag -- unless you're talking about goods that carry price tags.
"According to the Brookings Institute, in the month of the handover last year there were 18 suicide bombings…." (NPR, 10 a.m., June 28, 2005.) The name is Brookings Institution. And in that excerpt, during would be better than in. During means "throughout the duration of." In could apply to a single day.
"Dennis was no menace, it was a monster...." ("CBS Evening News," July 10, 2005.) A monster is a huge menace.
"No let-up in Iraq's increasingly bloody insurgency." ("CBS Evening News," July 17, 2005.) Now that's a shocker. Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" tells us to put statements in a positive form: "Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language." The anchor's next sentence provides material for a strong, positive lead: "At least 22 people died today in a wave of suicide attacks in and around Baghdad." But they didn't just die of heart attacks or boredom. Better: "Suicide attacks in and around Baghdad today killed 22 people." The anchor's next sentence: "This came as the Iraqi government formally filed its first criminal charges against Saddam Hussein." That news, too, could provide the lead. Formally? Had those charges ever been filed informally?
"She's on an emotional roller coaster, but somehow, in the midst of it all, she is also managing to reach out to…." (ABC, "Good Morning America," June 10, 2005.) Emotional roller coaster is so old, so rickety, so hackneyed, it's not safe.
"Whatever your taste in art, you'll probably agree this is pretty amazing." ("CBS Evening News," Feb. 16, 2005.) I tend to disagree with people who tell me I'll probably agree.
"It's hard to know just where to start in summing up the remarkable life of Peter Ustinov." (NPR, evening, March 29, 2004.) Yes, writing a lead can be hard. But listeners have problems of their own; they don't tune in to hear yours.
Newsrooms' problems are another matter. As those excerpts point up, newsrooms need stronger editing. Sharper editing. Educated editing. And that's the remedy -- in plain English.
Mervin Block, a newswriting coach, is the author of "Writing Broadcast News -- Shorter, Sharper Stronger." His tips and articles are at http://www.mervinblock.com. You can reach him (or sign up for his free tips list) at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: This article originally contained a paragraph that said NPR misused the word whomever in a broadcast on July 8. In fact, NPR's use of whomever was correct.