Home > Uncategorized > Things You’re Saying Wrong and Don’t Even Know It

Things You’re Saying Wrong and Don’t Even Know It

-first posted at RTDNA.org on February 9, 2010

Back when I started working at KOMU in 1986, then news director John Quarderer used to share his journalistic wisdom with me day in and day out.  Many of the things he said have stuck with me for nearly a quarter of a century, but perhaps none more so than a discussion we had once about words and writing.  “People don’t read as much as they used to,” said John, “so we’re the defenders of the language now.  TV news has to be sure to protect English and keep it safe.”

I’ve always kept that lofty charge in mind as I’ve edited countless reporter and producer scripts over all these years.  I’ve done my best every time to protect the language and keep it from deteriorating on my watch—at least in my little corner of television.  But it seems to be a losing battle at times.  And I’m calling on all of you to help.

Take a listen to your newscasts and redouble your efforts to protect the language in all its forms—written or spoken.  I keep track of some of the more egregious errors that seem to happen all the time, sharing them with my newsroom so that the journalists there can learn it from me in case they never learned it before.  I’ve picked out a few that most of you have had air incorrectly in your newsrooms—even if you didn’t know it.

The pronunciation of “often”: A few years back in elementary schools everywhere, I’m guessing the teachers gave up on this one. The word “often” is properly pronounced OFF-en.   The “t” is silent.  Trust me, it’s silent.  I’m guessing this chronic mispronunciation is the product of phonics training or some sort of rule tying together spelling and sound, but pronouncing it OFF-ten is AW-ful.  English has its quirks, but there are some good comps here.  When your reporters start pronouncing the “t’s” in hasten, soften, listen, moisten, christen, glisten, etc, I’ll start accepting it in “often.”  Until then, silence that “t” in your copy.

Meanwhile versus meantime: I hear these two words misused all the time–not just in my newsroom, but on local and national news everywhere.  In my own shop a few weeks ago, we had a story that began, “Meantime, the government is suing the world’s biggest maker of computer microprocessors.”   Wrong.  “Meantime” is a noun that means an occurrence happening at the same time as another.  So a sentence that means the exact same as what my producer wrote would have been, “Simultaneous occurrence, the government is suing the world’s biggest maker of computer microprocessors.”  Nonsense, right?  What the producer should have written is, “Meanwhile, the government is suing the world’s biggest maker of computer microprocessors.”  “Meanwhile” is an adverb that in this case modifies the verb “is suing.”   Your reporters and producers cannot use the two interchangeably.  If they insist on using “meantime,” they must make an adverb phrase out of it by adding the words “in the” in front of it.  So we could have had, “In the meantime, the government is suing the world’s biggest maker of computer microprocessors.”  But why use the extra words?  Get your folks to stick with the adverb “meanwhile” when writing in this way.

Changing the meaning of “long-lived” and “short-lived”: The two adjectives derive from the noun life (having either a long or short one) and not from the verb live (because you can’t do so longly or shortly).  Therefore, the proper pronunciation has a long “i” sound in “lived,” like the “i” in “hive.”  It should not be pronounced like the “i” in “give.”  The problem here seems to come from a desire on the speaker’s part to describe a style of living rather than a length of life.  Change this bad habit in your newsroom and they’ll look at you funny, but you’ll be doing your part.

Finally, an I told you so: My colleagues in Columbia will laugh when they see me bringing this up, but ten years ago, we actually sat around trying to figure out how the years of the 21st Century would be pronounced.  Most of the folks then figured the year would be pronounced fully, as in “two thousand and one” (by the way, the “and” is unnecessary and mathematically changes the word, but we’ll have that argument another time).  I told them I admired that they were being influenced by the great Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that the proper way to pronounce the first year of the century would be “twenty-oh-one.”  My logic was flawless.  The pronunciation was shorter, mirrored previous centuries, and shortened nicely to “on-one,” “oh-two,” etc.  We tried it my way for a while, but the public went with Kubrick and pronounced it the long way.  But as we approach the next decade (it begins in 2011, not 2010—trust me), people have come around to my way.  Now it’s getting pretty common to hear references to “twenty-ten,” “twenty-eleven,” and beyond.  So I’m gloating a bit now, knowing I was right all along, even if people didn’t believe me ten years ago.

But there’s no gloating necessary if you fix these and other problems in your newsroom’s use of English.  Instead, just enjoy a job well done as you become a language defender.  Future generations will thank you—even if they do so by texting you “THX“ in return.

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