Media Watch

Several weeks ago, a Vatican-endorsed medal honoring Pope Francis had to be recalled because Jesus was spelled “Lesus.” Just last week, a political placard at a Washington, D.C., press conference spelled filibuster “fillibuster” and against “againts.” In light of these disgraces, it seems the right time to reopen our Media Malfeasance file…

• “They have arrested two suspects, neither of whom are British.” This decades-old problem is only getting worse. To journalists it may concern: The pronoun neither, like either and each, is always singular. Make it “neither of whom is British.”

• “Prop. 32 is an initiative to curb union’s influence.” Ah, apostrophes. Note that one could also say “to curb the influence of unions”—that’s unions, plural. Plural nouns ending in s show possession with the apostrophe after the s, not before. So make it “curb unions’ influence.”

• “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” Looks all right, you say? The problem is the unnecessary question mark. “Guess” is an imperative—a direct order, not the first word in a question.

• “Rebecca Solnit’s book, Unfathomable City, was celebrated last week.” Remove the commas. This is slipshod editing. With the commas, the sentence means that Unfathomable City is the only book Solnit has ever written. In fact, she has written over a dozen.

The rule is that commas set off nonessential information. If the author has written only one book, its title is not essential to the sentence: “Rebecca Solnit’s [only] book, Unfathomable City, was celebrated last week.” But since she has written several, we must be told which book directly—no commas. Similarly, The actor, Robert De Niro, was there is incorrect with commas. But The president of the United States, Barack Obama, was there is correct.

As writers’ skills decline, so do readers’ standards. The acerbic avant-garde musician Frank Zappa (1940-1993) once described a rock ’n’ roll magazine as “written by people who can’t write for people who can’t read.” Were he alive today, Zappa might not limit his assessment to rock-music journalism.


Pop Quiz

See if you can spot the flaws in these actual quotations from the media.

1. “…shot himself with a riffle.”

2. “Is it fair to compare the two crisis?”

3. “It does so many other things that drives up the cost.”

4. “Everyone has come out looking badly.”

5. “Dow closes at new record high.”


Pop Quiz Answers

1. “…shot himself with a rifle.”

2. “Is it fair to compare the two crises?”

3. “It does so many other things that drive up the cost.”

4. “Everyone has come out looking bad.”

5. “Dow closes at record high.” (“new record” is a redundancy)

Posted on Monday, November 25, 2013, at 1:36 pm

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18 Comments on Media Watch

18 responses to “Media Watch”

  1. Jennifer M. says:

    And THIS is why I love your e-newsletters!

  2. Maria F. says:

    My favorite newspaper blunder was by a columnist who used her entire space to compliment the home team. Her closing line was, “So let’s give them a rousing Bronx cheer.”

  3. Harlan J. Blackstone says:

    I appreciate your analysis of the possessive case. My fourth novel has a character named Lester Jenks. Lester owns a ranch. I remembered a draconian junior high grammer teacher. She demanded adding an ‘ then an s. When one of my characters said, “Let’s go out to Lester Jenks’s ranch, it breaks the flow of the story dead in its tracks. If it jarred me it Jarred the reader. That’s not good. Thank you so much for reassuring me on this point.

  4. Marilyn W. says:

    In the last bullet point about Rebecca Solnit: The last sentence should read, “In fact, she has written more than a dozen.”

    • Jane says:

      Here is what Bill Bryson says in his Dictionary of Troublesome Words: “The notion that over is incorrect for more than is a widely held superstition … There is no harm in preferring more than, but also no basis for insisting on it.”

  5. Jocelyn L. says:

    I think I gotcha! Bullet three of the newsletter uses “all right” instead of “alright.” Is that not correct?

    • Jane says:

      We are interested to know which dictionary you consulted that would recommend “alright” over “all right.” While many dictionaries contain a listing for “alright,” they generally refer you back to “all right” where there will be a usage note to the effect that “alright” may appear in informal writing, but it has never been accepted as a standard variant, and “all right” is used in formal writing.

      The entry for all right in “Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words” includes “…alright continues to be looked on as illiterate and unacceptable, and consequently it ought never to appear in serious writing.”

      However, we are pleased you are reading the newsletter so carefully. Thank you for writing.

  6. PM says:

    I love this post. Thanks.

  7. Stella says:

    Hi Jane. I find your blog very interesting. You bring out some of the issues that most of us would just brush off. I agree with ‘As writers’ skills decline, so do readers’ standards.’ We depend so much on the media that we always emulate their writing and speech. It is even worse for students who are learning English as a second language because they adopt sub-standard English. I always assumed there was no plural of ‘crisis’. Thanks for pointing it out. I will definitely be alert now in as far as the media is concerned.

  8. Stella says:

    Thank you for the post. It is always hard for second language learners to differentiate between standard and sub-standard English. Most learners take to the media and quickly assume that everything is correct. On the exercise, I actually never paid much attention on the plural of ‘crisis’. Thank you for pointing it out.

  9. Bob Price says:

    I have no doubt that “I feel badly” is the most egregious common grammar error these days. For one thing, it is invariably made by people who should know better (screenwriters, journalists, etc.). Because it is unnatural, they evidently make a conscious choice to use this construction, and they likely do so in an attempt to sound intelligent (that is, more intelligent than their audience), almost always a bad, bad idea.

  10. Cindy says:

    The mispronunciation of “especially” is spreading faster than a California wildfire and is making me just as hot. People persist in saying “expecially”. I’ve even heard network news broadcasters pronounce it this way! I can’t seem to escape it. Please make it stop!

  11. Edith Rudy says:

    For me, it’s the horrible on-air “reporting” that gets to me. This morning a reporter on a national news program, talking about a videographer who kept taking video of two sharks on a fishing boat…”I would have ran”. It makes me nuts that not only do the reporters not understand English grammar, but the writers are apparently just as bad. I think we need a “shame” blog for reporters’ errors!

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