At A Loss For Words ...
It’s 4:33 p.m. in the fall of 1983. I’m working on a newsroom piece for the 5 O’clock, before crashing on my main story in the 6 O’clock, called “24 Action News” (KVUE TV, ABC), back then. No computer then. We were typing stories on six-part carbon script packs. I finish and walk briskly to the front of the 4X4 double-wide that housed the newsroom to get the producer’s OK.
The producer was good, especially with breaking news. He read. Then, he crossed through something and changed some words. “Hmmmmm,” I thought and leaned forward, reading upside-down. (Reporters have this talent.) “Why did you change that,” I asked. He muttered something. “I won’t read it that way,” I said. “It’s poor grammar.”
“I don’t care. That’s the way people talk,” he answered still reading.
I could feel my face getting red. “I won’t read it that way,” I repeated. “Those words won’t come out of my mouth on camera. If you want to go on camera and say them, fine. I won’t do that.” His face reddened.
Soon, someone else was involved—the executive producer or the news director, I don’t remember. Time was growing short. I was on deadline, but I made my case. “The reason,” I said, “that people talk that way is partially our fault in the media. If they or their kids hear it on TV, it only validates incorrect usage. If we use good grammar, those who know, notice. Those who don’t know don’t care. Those who know better and hear poor grammar will think less of us; it diminishes our credibility.” I recall saying something like that. There was a pause. Everyone looked at the producer. Everyone then looked at each other. It was time to go on the air.
I read the story the way that I had written it. Nothing else was ever said, and from that time on from job to job, I became the unofficial “grammar police”. Oh, sometimes I’d have to look things up, more often than not, someone would shout a grammatical question, and I would shout back “Yes” or “No” or the correct usage or word. Don't trust "Spell Check" to bail you out. It's best to know the correct spelling and usage in the first place.
I can remember one time diagramming a sentence on the KXAN TV (NBC) white board, AKA assignments wall, before computers made them anachronisms. (I understand that some stations still use the assignments boards. I don’t know why.) Anyway, I diagrammed this sentence in a vain attempt to explain a predicate nominative. The case of the subject and the predicate nominative should agree. Most, if not all, present stood there glassy-eyed and dumbfounded. Most had never seen a sentence diagrammed before. It’s really a useful tool to understanding syntax.
I used to tell first-year journalism students that they must love words, and they must respect what those words can do when used well. Words are like tools. When working on a project, one needs the “right tool”, just as a journalist or any writer should reach for just the right word. The word selected can create or diminish credibility.
I realize that language evolves and “new words” are added to the dictionaries every year, but I wonder like former newsman Edwin Newman (NBC and author of “Strictly Speaking” and other books), “Will America be the death of English?” I maintain that media must continue using correct grammar. Media should model what is correct, not what is wrong. Twenty-five years after asserting myself and standing up for my script as written, I still believe it.
It is just as true for interpersonal communication as it is for mass communication. If an individual wants people to hear a message, not the words, one should choose the right words and use them well.
What brought all of this on? This week, I heard on TV someone say something like, “The attacks centered around this area.” Hint: Something cannot center around. Something can center on, but something cannot center around. Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!
© Jim McNabb, 2009