Friday, May 13, 2011

A language lament

That's me on the right with the pen
I have always been a big fan of National Public Radio. I listen every day and greatly admire the station’s consistently incisive reporting and its coverage of international issues beyond the immediate sphere of American interests. So it grieves me to have to say – with my editor hat on (not that it’s ever off) – that NPR has become downright sloppy in its use of the English language.
I’m not talking about colloquialisms, which play a legitimate part in contemporary spoken English. I’m talking about big-time grammatical no-nos.  The fact that many of these are legion throughout the journalism world doesn’t cut any ice with me. I had hoped NPR would hold itself to a higher standard.
The first and most pervasive error is the widespread missing out of prepositions. Instead of saying that so-and-so “provided me with information,” the correspondent invariably says “provided me information.” Nor do I ever hear anyone say that a statistic is “up by 50 percent” – no, it’s “up 50 percent.” Another one that drives me crazy is when reporters say that someone is “suffering mental illness” instead of “suffering from mental illness.” What is this compulsion to shorten every sentence to the fewest possible words?
The second of my pet peeves is the widespread inability to know when to use an adverb instead of an adjective: “Where they’ve operated strongest” instead of “most strongly.” Adverbs are a generally tricky subject in this country. Everybody eats “more healthy” instead of “more healthily.” I’m all for simplicity of language but not when it makes no sense.
And then there is the vexed question of dangling modifiers. In the aftermath of the terrible shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in January of this year, I gasped in disbelief when I heard one NPR correspondent saying, “Shot in the head two weeks ago, doctors say that Congresswoman Giffords… blah, blah, blah.” According to that sentence, it was the doctors who were shot in the head, not Ms. Giffords. I hear this kind of blooper all the time on NPR, not just when reporters are talking off the cuff but in prepared, pre-taped reports. Why did no one in the chain of command hear it and say: ”That’s not correct”? Is it because no one – not even the well-educated professionals at National Public Radio – actually knows a dangling modifier when they see one any more?
In case anyone thinks I’m singling out American journalists, consider my all-time favorite blooper from a report on a hybrid animal: “A cross between a llama and a camel, scientists say the lamel blah, blah, blah…” That beauty was broadcast on the venerable BBC. It’s enough to make an editor break her red pen over her knee and go off to live in a cave.


  1. Get them to hire you, and make things right!!

  2. I agree with you completely, Fiona, and I'd hope NPR would keep to a higher standard than most writers, readers, and publishers seem to these days. Funny about the missing prepositions, though; the American examples you gave had never bothered me, but I find myself stymied sometimes by British customary dropping out of prepositions, as in "Egg chips" instead of "egg with chips," etc. ("Egg chips" sounds to me like pieces of hard-boiled egg, shell and all.) I guess we don't notice what we're used to.

    Keep fighting the good fight! We mustn't give up.