Grammar Media Watch: Pronouns, Effective Writing |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Media Watch: Pronouns, Effective Writing

Let’s zero in once more on cringe-inducers culled from recent dailies and periodicals …

• Newspaper headline: “New look for a old test.”

One of the principles of English you would think we all learned in third grade is that the article a goes before consonants (a pen, a hat), and the article an goes before vowels and vowel sounds (an owl, an honor). But these days, items like that headline are rampant. Here’s a reporter writing of “a unusual twist in Senate process.” Here’s another, mentioning “an very unfortunately named document.” We’ve even heard the president of the United States say “a international effort.”

We can no longer dismiss such things as a slip of the tongue or a typo.

• Another rule we learned in grade school was, “Neither … nor, either  or, but never neither  or.” We thought everybody knew that one. But neither  or is gaining momentum among people who ought to know better, like the columnist who wrote: “In short, the technology, sports and political worlds seem to be saying that markets should neither be free or fair.”

Let’s change “or” to “nor,” and while we’re at it, put “be” before “neither” to make the sentence parallel: “ … saying that markets should be neither free nor fair.”

• A magazine reported that a twelve-year-old girl sold 18,107 boxes of Girl Scout cookies, calling it “an all-time record.” Delete “all-time.” All records are all-time records. Writers should also avoid new record—when a record is set, new is redundant.

• An article about a successful author offered this snarky advice: “Don’t publish anything ’til you’re fifty.” The writer of this profile should have written “till you’re fifty.” You won’t find a reference book anywhere that recommends ’til. In Words on Words, John B. Bremner declares brusquely, “Either till or until, but not ’til.” Some defend ’til as a contraction of until. However, till predates until by several centuries.

• Check out this sentence about an aggressive company: “The Comcast-run colossus may be able to dictate terms to individual cable channels and Hollywood studios who supply TV shows and movies.” Make it “that supply TV shows and movies.” Use who only when referring to humans. Businesses may be run by humans, but grammatically they are things. Avoid usages like a company who. Use that or which instead.

At least as far as grammar is concerned, there is no debate: corporations are not people.


Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors.

1. “It was committed by two identical twin sisters.”

2. “What lengths did you go through in order to get this done?”

3. “This is bad news for we Americans.”

4. “There are also good places out there too.”

5. “It was different from the bill that they had wrote.”


Pop Quiz Answers

1. “It was committed by identical twin sisters.” (two twins is redundant)

2. “What lengths did you go to in order to get this done?”

3. “This is bad news for us Americans.”

4. “There are also good places out there.” (“also … too” is redundant)

5. “It was different from the bill that they had written.”

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

4 responses to “Media Watch: Pronouns, Effective Writing”

  1. Zack says:

    I am hearing more and more media (weather forecasters) saying “precipitation chances will increase by the weekend” rather than the way I would say it “the chance for precipitation will increase by the weekend”. Which do you think is the most grammatically correct?

    • The problem is not grammar, because these ugly sentences are both grammatical. We would avoid the bloated “precipitation” and say, “The chances of rain will increase by the weekend.”

  2. Scott M. says:

    With the rise of the Internet, there is a gap in our language that has yet, I believe, to be filled. Do you have any position on the use of the word ‘commentor’? I realize that it doesn’t officially appear in any dictionaries, that I know of. I thought it was a practice to append/affix ‘or’ when changing a verb to a noun for referencing people.
    Am I wrong in this regard? It would be nice to see a newsletter headline: ‘[SOLVED] Commenter, Commentator or Commentor’.

    • Synchronism can be amazing. When we received your comment, we thought: you have a point; someone should coin commenter or commentor. But since the word does not (yet) exist, it is just another of many “gaps” in English that we must work around for now. Then, just minutes later, we read in the July 14, 2014, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle “Commenters had little to say about the excitement of the restaurateur to be hosting these literally world-class stars.” Apparently, commenter has entered the English language.

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