Grammar Media Watch: Word Choice, Articles, Pronouns |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Media Watch: Word Choice, Articles, Pronouns

These articles used to be a lot more fun to write, but that was before newspapers and magazines went on life support. Mainly, we do “Media Watch” for the copy editors, those unsung word nerds who make journalists watch what they say and how they say it.

When companies struggle, they downsize, so we shudder to think of all the fine copy editors who have been cast aside as expendable. If we’ve hired capable writers, the corporate thinking might go, they’ll do OK without some finicky scold looking over their shoulders. Fine, but as that old song says, you don’t know what you’ve lost till it’s gone …

• “Schmidt described her as ‘very calm—nonplussed’ after the senator met with her.”

No doubt Schmidt meant that the woman was unruffled, but nonplussed means confused.

• “There was nothing longer then this” (should be “than”).

This blunder would be embarrassing anywhere, but it cropped up in the daily word puzzle known as Jumble, a game whose very existence depends upon its spelling accuracy.

• “A unusual twist in Senate process.”
• “An very unfortunately named document.”

One of the principles of English that Americans once learned in first grade was when to use the article a (before consonants: a man) and when to use an (before vowels and vowel sounds: an owl, an honor). But this basic rule has become a mystery to many of us, including otherwise intelligent public figures who say things like “a international effort.”

This thing has become an epidemic. But here’s one that may deserve the benefit of the doubt: “Her friends plan to use an Ouija board.” The author is probably too young to know that even though Ouija starts with a vowel, it’s pronounced “wee-ja,” so it takes a, not an.

• “The dirty little secret about being an artist is that you’re still a human being. That means he or she has the same emotions as everyone else.”

That’s not pretty. The writer wanted to avoid using they with the singular “an artist,” a laudable goal, but he lost control of his sentence. Why did he go from “you” to “he or she”? Just change the second sentence to, “That means you have the same emotions as everyone else.” Better yet, making “artist” plural avoids the whole mess: “The dirty little secret about artists is that they’re still human beings. That means they have the same emotions as everyone else.”

We suspect that the laying off of gifted copy editors at newspapers and magazines is behind most if not all of these blunders. Even good writers falter under the pressure of deadlines—a venerable critic recently wrote, “We live in a time where every musical genre can be labeled world music.” On such occasions, writers need someone they can depend on to change that ill-advised “where” to “when.”

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2 responses to “Media Watch: Word Choice, Articles, Pronouns”

  1. Terry Miller says:

    I work the Jumble puzzles every day, and have noticed lately that they commit more than a few errors. Worse than their occasional grammar flubs, is the fact that they often fail to use correct synonyms.

  2. TheCuke says:

    I’ve also noticed an increasing number of obvious errors in what I would have once considered grammatically (and mechanically) sound publications. But now, when the flow of an article is compromised as my own reading of it catches on a glaring error, I’m reminded of policemen, firemen, and doctors–they’re “safe” figures in the eyes of a child until, one day, it’s realized that they’re actually just regular people, capable of being just as unsafe as any “stranger.” These “safe” publications are no longer necessarily reliable sources against which one can check his or her own spelling, grammar, or punctuation skills.

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