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Fundamentals

 

Introduction 

           In this first lesson we will try to make sure you are skilled enough with the English language to become good journalists. When it comes to helping diverse mass audiences understand unfamiliar information, journalists have three primary obligations:

           1. They must get the facts right.

           2. They must place those facts in a true and appropriate context.

           3. They must craft a story that makes clear what happened, what is at issue, and what is at stake for the audience.

 

The task 

           We are the people – often the only people — our audiences rely on for that. To be sure, we use images – moving and still – to help tell the story, but it is the words we choose and the way we string them together that make facts and images clear and put them in the appropriate context. So it’s crucial that we use words correctly, and that we use words on whose meaning practically everyone agrees.    

           While some slang, colloquialisms and informal constructions might be familiar to you and your friends, they might cause confusion or misunderstanding for many who read and watch news stories. Remember that our goal, in each story, is to help mass audiences understand what is happening and what is at stake for them. In his book The Stories of English, linguist David Crystal celebrates the myriad varieties of English being spoken and written today. But he also acknowledges the value of standard usage: “The role of a standard language, whether it is used nationally or internationally, is to enable the members of a community to understand each other. Everyone needs to learn it, in the interests of efficient and effective communication.” (p. 6) Because words are the tools we use to craft stories, we must become experts in using those tools.

           There are at least two challenges in learning to write well. The first is that learning to write well takes discipline, hard work, and a lot of practice. But one thing we can do that is a little easier is to avoid writing badly.

           The second challenge is that some people use words not to make things clear and help people understand, but to obfuscate and create confusion. As reporters we must learn to recognize those efforts and get to the truth. Not everyone uses language with evil intent; some people are just lousy at it or careless.

           Fortunately, avoiding writing badly and cutting through other people’s obscure language often take the same skills of recognition. In your own writing and in translating the writings of others, you can eliminate poor grammar, confusing punctuation, misspellings, clichés, redundancies, bureaucratese and other forms of obfuscation.

           Similarly, there are a lot of ways that public officials and spin doctors use to confuse the public with numbers – city budgets, property taxes, poll percentages. It’s the journalist’s responsibility to examine those figures and point out the mistakes, shaky assumptions and outright lies. The bad news is the basis for an old, tired joke – journalists are the people who couldn’t play the violin and flunked math. A lot of journalists are math-averse, but they can’t afford to be. We’re not talking calculus, just basic arithmetic, percentage changes and so forth.

           So you will take a test on grammar, spelling and punctuation, and another one on math facts, below.

 

Huh?

           First, though, let’s consider some expressions that might not be ungrammatical, just vague or confusing. Consider these few examples of  redundancies, wordiness and bureaucratese (see Box F.1 and F.2):

           Some cities refer to certain employees as “urban transportation specialists.” You and I might recognize them as bus drivers. These urban transportation specialists occasionally encounter “pavement deficiencies” – potholes. A tax on airline tickets is sometimes called a “passenger facility charge.” Nobody wants to hear that he or she has a bossy child, so teachers sometimes say such children “display leadership charisma.” Unruly children display “negative attention-getting behavior.” Instead of reading, some school children now “interact with print.”

           I heard a TV weatherman several years ago warn me of an impending “major frozen precipitation event,” when I thought it was just going to snow. An intern at a newspaper I worked for tried to tell his readers that someone had “drowned for 20 minutes.” Another person was “electrocuted to death.” Police reports often refer to vehicles that are “yellow in color” (yellow), “traveling at a high rate of speed” (speeding), or “traveling in a northwesterly direction” (headed northwest). Fire “totally destroyed” a building (use “destroyed” by itself; there are no degrees of destruction, only of damage). Employees who misbehave are sometimes “temporarily suspended” (suspended), before they are allowed to “resign voluntarily” (resign; if it’s not voluntary it’s a firing). Finally, decades ago advertisers recognized the power of  a gift as an enticement. But then they had to distinguish their gift offer from the other guy’s. By the beginning of the third millennium, we were being offered “a complimentary free gift at no cost to you. You pay  nothing.” Really.

    

Box F.1 Bureaucratese

           Some public officials, military leaders and educators would rather people not know what they are up to, or have them think that their jobs carry special importance. Some examples of the language they use, and the translations:

Term                                                              What it means

achieved non-mastery                                  failed

agricultural specialist                                    farmer

career offender cartel                                   Mafia

chronologically gifted                                    old

custodial engineer                                         janitor

health care professional                               nurse or doctor

pavement deficiencies                                 potholes

servicing the target                                       bombing

socially marginal                                           a loose cannon

urban transportation specialist                    bus driver

waste management technician                   garbage collector

 

 

 

    

Box. F.2 Redundant Redundancies and Wordiness

            Using more words than necessary is a good way to confuse audiences. For some sources journalists deal with, that’s the goal. Don’t let them get away with it:

Long version                                                      Short version

advance planning                                                  planning

armed gunmen                                                      gunmen

at this point in time                                                now

canceled out                                                          canceled

city of Valleydale                                                   Valleydale

completely unnecessary                                       unnecessary

complimentary free gift at no cost to you            free

cooperate together                                               cooperate

electrocuted to death                                            electrocuted

exactly identical                                                     identical

few in number                                                        few

general consensus of opinion                             consensus

traveling at a high rate of speed                         speeding

high-speed chase                                                chase

large in size                                                           large (or big)

necessary requirement                                        necessary (or requirement)

postpone until later                                               postpone

recessed into                                                        recessed

still remain                                                             remain

temporarily suspended                                        suspended

totally destroyed                                                   destroyed

true facts                                                                facts

widow of the late                                                   widow of

yellow in color                                                        yellow            

 

 

Quiz 1: Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation

           Take the following quiz. Some of these shouldn’t give you much trouble. Others might, because bureaucrats, spokesmen, public officials, ad copywriters, sports broadcasters and journalists regularly screw them up. Too often, they don’t give you much in the way of role models.

           When you have finished the quiz, go on to find the correct answer and explanation for each. If you cheat you won’t learn as much. Consider this to be your first ethical challenge as a journalist, because the more you learn, the better you can serve your audiences.   

           The questions:

           1. She is older than (he, him).

           2. Researchers have detected the presence of a nonlethal (bacteria, bacterium) at the Army base.

           3. Aspirin has no (affect, effect) on viruses.

           4. No data (has, have) been lost.

           5. The new building will be located at this (sight, site, cite).

           6. Her questions were intended to (elicit, illicit) useful answers.

           7. Had someone else said it, everyone would have laughed and (went, gone) on with life.

           8. We cannot succumb to threats (comma, semicolon, no punctuation) however (comma, no comma; semicolon) we can let every voice be heard.

           9. The editor had trouble deciding which (course, coarse) of action to take.

          10. Mary chose to (forgo, forego) the offer of legal (counsel, council).

          11. The water was treated with chlorine and smelled (bad, badly).

          12. The organizers were disappointed at the small (amount, number, quantity)  of supporters.

          13. The school’s president announced his (eminent, imminent) retirement.

          14. When the train wrecked, rescuers (sprung, sprang) into action.

          15. The media (has, have) not served (their, its) audiences well.

          16. Mother went camping with Ruth, Maynard and (I, me, myself).

          17. Everyone who has an interest in cultivating roses in (his, her, their) garden will be fascinated.

          18. She is the one (whose, who’s) coming to dinner.

          19. I usually (lie, lay) on the sofa to watch baseball.

          20. His message appeals to people (that, who, whom) see the world in simple terms.

          21. She said she had (lay, laid, lain) there for an hour before anyone found her.

          22. The Southern Military Academy library has far (less, fewer) books than the Harvard library.

          23. That lawyer gave the newspaper wise (counsel, council) in (their, its) (liable, libel) suit.

          24. Food is in short supply because (there’s, there are, they’re) so many people.

          25. Neither Jim nor Martha (like, likes) crab cakes.

          26. Meagan LeBlanc jumped (off, off of, from) the cliff to save the child.

          27. A leader can do many things to try (and, to) buffer negative consequences.

          28. Was the (family’s, families) privacy invaded?

          29. He was charged with drunk driving after swerving and hitting a car coming (towards, toward) him.

          30. Hunter was living with his girlfriend (comma, no comma) Topping (comma, no comma)  who was also injured in the accident.

          31. He had to choose (between, among) four alternatives.

          32. The death of the Queen Mother (effected, affected) her deeply.

          33. Then they found the other girls (comma, no comma) who were in (their, there, they’re) beds sleeping.

          34. His arraignment has been set for tomorrow morning (comma, no comma) at which time he could (loose, lose) his freedom.

          35. He was (arrested for, charged with) selling drugs to a (miner, minor).

          36. This needs to be resolved by you, (I, me), and (he, him).

          37. Was it (she, her) (who, whom) he was referring to?

          38. Just as I (lay, laid, lie) down, the chicken started clucking because she had (lay, laid, leid) an egg.

          39. When the hotel dining room caught fire, the guests were evacuated (without injury) to the parking lot (without injury).

          40.  A dromedary is different (than, from) a Bactrian camel.        

          41. (It’s, Its) pretty clear that the organization wants nothing to stand in (its, it’s, their) way.

          42. She said she (will, would) go if it doesn’t rain.

          43. The first time I did my laundry in college I (shrunk, shrank) all my jeans.

          44. She said after the accident that she was feeling (alright, all right).

          45. According to the police report, the prisoner (snuck, sneaked) out of  the van when the driver stopped for gas.

          46. He stops for an ice cream cone on the way home almost (every day, everyday).

          47. The streaker (dived, dove) into the bushes when he saw a campus security guard coming.

          48.  At one minute pastmidnight(comma, no comma) the police spokesman said (comma, no comma) the convicted murderer was executed.

          49. The senator said (hopefully, he hoped) a budget would be passed soon.

          50.  If  McNab (throws, had thrown) the ball a yard (farther, further), that play (goes, went, would have gone) for a touchdown.

 

The answers:

           1. She is older than he. What you are really saying is “She is older than he is.”  Because he is the subject of the clause he is it has to be in the subjective case. Him is objective. You wouldn’t say, “She is older than him is.”

           2.  Researchers have detected the presence of a nonlethal bacterium at the Army base. Bacterium is singular; bacteria is plural. That’s Latin for you. Chances are the researchers found more than a single bacterium, but to take away the indefinite article and say, “Researchers have detected the presence of nonlethal bacteria” creates confusion, because it could mean more than one strain of bacteria. 

           3. Aspirin has no effect on viruses.  Remember that most of the time effect will be a noun and affect will be a verb.

           4. No data have been lost.  Another pesky Latin word. Data is plural. Datum is singular.  Increasingly, though, data is being used with singular verbs.

           5. The new building will be located at this site.  Sight is the ability to see. Cite is to call to someone’s attention or to recognize formally. Site is a location.

           6. Her questions were intended to elicit useful answers.  Illicit means unlawful or not permitted. Elicit means to bring forth.

           7. Had someone else said it, everyone would have laughed and gone on with life. You’re really saying, “Everyone would have laughed and would have gone on …,” so gone is correct here.

           8. We cannot succumb to threats; however, we can let every voice be heard.  In the first case, independent clauses have to be separated by a comma and a conjunction or by a semicolon; a comma alone won’t do it. In the second case, you need a comma to avoid confusion.  Without the comma, we’re saying we can let every voice be heard in whatever way possible. 

           9. The editor had trouble deciding which course of action to take. Course refers to an option or path; coarse is a texture.

         10. Mary chose to forgo the offer of legal counsel.  Let’s take these two backwards: First, counsel is advice; council is a body that meets to deliberate.  Second, if you chose forgo, good for you. Practically nobody recognizes that forego means to go before; forgo means to do without. Note: Some dictionaries now allow forego as an alternative spelling of forgo, but that just confuses things, doesn’t it?

         11.  The water was treated with chlorine and smelled bad.  A lot of people choose “badly” because bad is often used ungrammatically (“We played bad,” Coach Hockenmeister said.) But in this case we need bad, the adjective, because it modifies water, the noun, not smelled, the verb. If we say the water smelled badly, we mean that the water has a poorly developed sense of smell — impossible.   

         12. The organizers were disappointed at the small number of supporters. Use number with things you can count (like people); use amount with things you measure (like rain).  Generally, leave the word “quantity” out of journalistic writing. It’s stilted.

         13. The school’s president announced his imminent retirement.  Eminent means distinguished; imminent means about to happen. 

         14. When the train wrecked, rescuers sprang into action. Sprang is the simple past tense of “spring”; sprung is the past participle: had sprung.

         15. The media have not served their audiences well. You need subject-verb agreement: Media is a plural noun; it should be a hanging offense to misuse it. Because it is plural, it must take both the plural verb have and the plural pronoun their.

         16. Mother went camping with Ruth, Maynard and me. This one should not be a problem when you think that we’re really saying “. . . with Ruth, with Maynard, and with me.”

         17. Everyone who has an interest in cultivating roses in his garden will be fascinated. You can also say “ . . . cultivating roses in her garden . . . ”, but then you run into the sexist assumption that all gardeners are women. Because use of the male pronoun as the generic singular sounds so hidebound and archaic, and the use of his or her is so clumsy, we are tempted to use the plural pronoun their as a substitute. But everyone is singular; it can’t take the plural pronoun their. Try this as a solution: “Everyone who has an interest in cultivating roses will be fascinated,” or “People who have an interest in cultivating roses will be fascinated.” (And remember, when you’re tied in knots grammatically, the best solution could be just to cut the string. Rewrite the sentence.)  

         18. She is the one who’s coming to dinner. Whose is a possessive pronoun; who’s is a contraction of who is.

         19. I usually lie on the sofa to watch baseball. Lay is a transitive verb; it takes a direct object: “Watch the chicken lay an egg.” Lie is intransitive; it takes no object: “I like to lie in bed every morning.”  Where it gets confusing is that lay is also the simple past tense of lie: “I lay down for an hour before dinner.” Hey, if it was easy anybody could do it.

         20. His message appeals to people who see the world in simple terms. Who is a personal pronoun; personal implies that it has to do with people. That is an impersonal  pronoun; it refers to things: The train that derailed.  

         21. She said she had lain there for an hour before anyone found her.  More fun with the lie/lay business. You already know that you need the intransitive verb lie. But in this case you need not the present tense lie nor the simple past tense lay; the presence of the verb had means you need the past participle: lain.  

         22. The Southern Military Academy library has far fewer books than the Harvard library. As with number and amount, you use fewer with things you count, less with things you measure.

         23. That lawyer gave the newspaper wise counsel in its libel suit.  One at a time: As you saw in question 10, counsel refers to advice. Next, libel is a legal term meaning to harm someone’s reputation by a false statement; liable means likely or inclined to. And a newspaper is a singular noun, not collective, so it takes the singular pronoun its.  (Note: remember that its is the possessive form of it. We don’t use an apostrophe here because it’s is a contraction of it is.)      

         24. Food is in short supply because there are so many people.  People is a plural noun, so you need the plural subject and verb there are. They’re is a contraction of they are.

         25. Neither Jim nor Martha likes crab cakes. The neither/nor construction tells us we are considering Jim and Martha as separate subjects. So each singular subject must take the singular verb likes.

         26. Meagan LeBlanc jumped from the cliff to save the child. Off of is redundant; off is acceptable, but it could imply that Meagan was already off the cliff when she jumped. From clears up the ambiguity. 

         27. A leader can do many things to try to buffer negative consequences. The intended meaning is that the leader will make an attempt to buffer. To say a leader can try and buffer gives the sentence compound verbs: The leader will try and will buffer. 

         28. Was the family’s privacy invaded?  Because privacy is a right belonging to the family, family must take the possessive, indicated by the apostrophe. Had we intended to refer to the privacy of more than one family, we would need families’ privacy.

         29. He was charged with drunk driving after swerving and hitting a car coming toward him.  The preposition toward is singular. Interestingly, in British English it ordinarily is plural: towards.

         30. Hunter was living with his girlfriend, Topping, who was also injured in the accident. When used as internal punctuation, commas come in pairs, one before, one after. The use of commas here says Hunter has one girlfriend, and her name is Topping. Without the commas we would be saying that he had more than one girlfriend, so the name Topping would become essential to the meaning of the sentence and would not be set off by commas.

         31. He had to choose among four alternatives.  Use between when you have two options; use among when there are three or more.

         32. The death of the Queen Mother affected her deeply.  Again, in most cases affect is a verb and effect is a noun.

         33. Then they found the other girls, who were in their beds sleeping. Again, using the comma means that we are talking about only one set of other girls, and that they happened to be in their beds. Without the comma, the sentence means that there were two batches of girls in bed. For the second choice we want the plural possessive pronoun their.

         34. His arraignment has been set for tomorrow morning, at which time he could lose his freedom.  Set off the second clause with a comma because it is incidental to the primary idea in the sentence, the time of his arraignment. For some reason, loose and lose are often confused. They shouldn’t be; one means not tight; the other means to forfeit or misplace.

         35. He was charged with selling drugs to a minor.   Let’s take the strictly grammatical problem first. A minor is someone younger than legal age; a miner is someone who removes valuable elements from the earth. We use charged with instead of arrested for because of the implications involved. Arrested for implies that he committed the crime, so he was arrested.  But in our legal system we value the presumption of innocence; a defendant is presumed not guilty until guilt is admitted or proven in court. We should stick with what we know to be true: that he was charged with a crime, not that he committed it.  

         36. This needs to be resolved by you, me and him. All three pronouns are objects of the preposition by, so all three must be in the objective case. We wouldn’t say by you, by I and by he. 

         37. Was it she whom he was referring to? If you turn the structure of the two clauses in this sentence around, it becomes clear that the first pronoun needs to be subjective, the second objective: It was she (she is identical to and renames the subject it) and he was referring to whom (whom is the object of the preposition to). By the way, it is usually okay to end a sentence with a preposition.

         38. Just as I lay down, the chicken started clucking because she had laid an egg.  Okay, one more time and we can lay this one to rest.  Lay in this usage is the simple past tense of the intransitive verb lie, and laid is the past perfect of the transitive verb lay.

         39. When the hotel dining room caught fire, the guests were evacuated to the parking lot without injury.  We risk a misplaced modifier here, the prepositional phrase without injury. If we put it before to the parking lot it means the parking lot wasn’t injured. That’s probably not what we mean.    

         40. A dromedary is different from a Bactrian camel. Different almost always takes the preposition from rather than than.

         41. It’s pretty clear that the organization wants nothing to stand in its way.  In the first instance, it’s is the appropriate contraction for it is. In the second, organization is not a collective noun, so it takes a singular pronoun. Remember that the possessive form of it is its.

         42. She said she would go if it doesn’t rain.  The issue here is called sequence of tenses, and it’s something practically everybody screws up.  When the second verb depends on the main verb (she would go is what she said), it must obey the tense of the principal verb. But because if it doesn’t rain does not depend on she said (it will rain or not despite what she said), it does not have to follow the tense of the main verb.   

         43. The first time I did my laundry in college I shrank all my jeans.  I don’t care how many movies you have seen that talk about what somebody shrunk. Getting the tense wrong for this verb is goofy. Shrank is the simple past tense of shrink.

         44. She said after the accident that she was feeling all right. There is no such word as alright.  

         45. According to the police report, the prisoner sneaked out of the van when the driver stopped for gas. There is no such word as snuck.

         46. He stops for an ice cream cone on the way home almost every day.  Practically everyone is abusing this one lately.  In this usage, it must be two words because every is an adjective modifying the noun day. Everyday is one word only when it acts as a single adjective: Thunderstorms became an everyday occurrence that July.  In that case, everyday is one adjective modifying the noun occurrence.

         47. The streaker dived into the bushes when he saw a campus security guard.  Dove is not the accepted past tense of dive

         48. At one minute past midnight, the police spokesman said, the convicted murderer was executed. Because the execution happened at one minute pastmidnight, we need to set the attribution off by commas. If we had meant that the police spokesman made the statement at one minute pastmidnight, we would not need commas.

         49. The senator said he hoped a budget would be passed soon.  Everybody seems to be using hopefully to mean I hope, we hope, he hopes, and so forth. But hopefully is an adverb; it cannot substitute for a subject and a verb.  

         50. If McNab had thrown the ball a yard farther, that play would have gone for a touchdown.  “If McNab throws . . . that play goes . . .”  has come into common usage because sports broadcasters are incapable of handling anything more complex than the present tense. But because we are describing an event that might have happened, we need the conditional tense both times. You need “farther” because we’re dealing with distance. Use “further” when you’re talking about degree: He couldn’t take his argument any further.  

     

Quiz Two: Math for journalists

           Go to this website at the University of North Carolina and take the math-for-journalists quiz. You may ignore the 20-minute time limit; assume it is self-paced. You may also ignore the plea not to write on the test paper:

http://www.unc.edu/~pmeyer/carstat/mathtestquestions.html

 

Grading

         To find out how you did:

         For Quiz One, tally the number of correct answers, then multiply by two. (Remember that some sentences have two or three sets of choices, so a perfect score would be 134.)

          If you scored 120 or better, you’re pretty handy with your principal tool, the English language. If you scored 100-120, you know the language fairly well, but you might brush up on certain skills. If you scored below 100, be honest with yourself, give yourself a pep talk, and ask your instructor to point you to some easily digestible grammar books that will help you develop your skills. One suggestion is Paula LaRocque’s The book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to  Writing Well (Marion Street Press). A little extra work now will pay handsomely later. See other resources under Strategies, below.    

           For Quiz Two, simply count the number you got wrong. If it’s more than three, you need to sharpen your math pencil.  See below.

    

Box F.3 Strategies for Using Tools with Skill

1. Choose words on whose meaning practically everyone agrees.   

2. Avoid slang, colloquialisms and informal constructions. They may be unfamiliar to many in a mass audience.

3. Become an expert at using words. Words are the tools you use to craft meaningful stories.

4. Develop the discipline to work hard and practice writing a lot.

5. Avoid writing badly by learning to recognize poor grammar, confusing punctuation, misspellings, clichés, redundancies, bureaucratese and other forms of obfuscation.

6. Get up to speed on your basic math skills. Make sure that includes knowing how to calculate percentage changes. 

7. For online help with grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax, check out http://www.grammaruntied.com/. For online math refreshers, go to http://cubreporters.org/newsroom_math.html and http://www.newslab.org/resources/math.htm.

 

 

Strategies

           1. Choose words on whose meaning practically everyone agrees. To create understanding for mass audiences, you need to use familiar language.

           2. Avoid slang, colloquialisms and informal constructions. The language you use among your friends is often unintelligible to a 65-year-old retiree.

           3. Become an expert at using words. They are your tools; to craft good stories, you must be skilled at using them.

           4. Write a lot, and often. Writing well is hard work that requires discipline.  

           5. To write well, first avoid writing badly. Learn to recognize poor grammar, confusing punctuation, misspellings, cliches, redundancies, bureaucratese and other sins. Remember that some sources use language to obfuscate rather than clarify.

           6. Get up to speed on your basic math skills. Make sure that includes knowing how to calculate percentage changes.   

           7. For online help with grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax, check out http://www.grammaruntied.com/. For online math refreshers, go to http://cubreporters.org/newsroom_math.html and http://www.newslab.org/resources/math.htm.

  

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