the ‘mush of
On a recent Sunday, I was watching my NFL team, the Baltimore Ravens, struggle against the New York Jets.
The game ended up a depressing fourth loss in a row for the Ravens, but at least I got one benefit from it, when, in the middle of the second half, with the outcome still in doubt, the play-by-play fellow said that the Ravens were “trying to snap a three-game losing streak.”
“Wrong!” I shouted, rising to my full (yet modest) height from my chair. (Writing coaches perversely love such mistakes.)
It is true that the Ravens had lost their three previous games. But, in fact, their “three-game losing streak” ended when they had lost the previous Sunday to the New York Giants. What the announcer meant was that the Ravens were “trying to end their losing streak at three games.”
I bring up the sloppiness of TV-sports coverage because sloppy usage begins somewhere, and lots of people, including lots of hard-news editors and reporters, watch and listen to sports broadcasts. It’s human nature: Whether we want to or not, we tend to imitate usages we hear.
Writing, whether for a newspaper, a postcard, a blog or a novel, is the assigning of words or phrases to ideas, actions or facts. As Jacques Barzun wrote in his book “Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers,” imitation can be deadly, especially when our choices are reflexive, based on bad usages that are repeated until they become standard:
“Such words and phrases are vague from the start or become so by vogue – overuse. They are in our heads because they are in fashion at the time.”
The sloppy “X-game losing streak” is among the most common errors.
I know, I know: People watching the Ravens-Giants game that day knew exactly what the announcer meant, so I should just butt out. But although TV announcers can get by with such almost-accurate statements – their words evaporate instantaneously – newspaper reporters require a higher standard, for our words live on.
If you watch any televised sports, you already know about the post-outcome interview. The interviewer, usually well-groomed and self-assured, can be counted on to ask the winner: “What does this victory mean to you?”
“It means a lot,” the winner will say, unless he decides to go really profound and say, “It means everything.”
I accept that those post-game interviewers have to hurry madly to grab someone to talk to, and I further recognize that viewers aren’t expecting lengthy analyses. My concern is more with the proliferation of such worthless interviews. I worry about Barzun’s point that with such inanities cemented in our brains, we in newspapers will, as we have in the past, fall into the trap of imitating TV.
But it’s not just TV that implants meaningless blather in our brains. The 2016 political season is rife with the same kind of nonsense. In your city, county or state elections, how many candidates have promised the magic phrase “economic development”?
That’s the cheapest of the cheap pledges, but did reporters look into the specifics? Did editors demand such investigation? “Economic development” often comes with large price tags, such as the loosening of development regulations and the concomitant risks to the environment, or the granting of tax-increment financing, which can drain tax revenues for local governments.
How about the pledge, “No new taxes”? I heard a lawmaker explain to constituents why she voted against a tax increase that passed. Her reasoning had nothing to do with whether the new tax would benefit the state. Her sole rationale: Because she had run on a platform of “no new taxes,” she simply had to vote “Nay.” She could not turn her back on that pledge, no matter how reasonable the new tax was.
In the coverage of her original election, shouldn’t we – and I include myself in this criticism – have made her answer for the possibility that some new tax in some circumstance she couldn’t foresee would be a positive for her constituents?
What we all have to be vigilant about is the tendency to hear a familiar statement or phrase and assume that, by its familiarity, it has achieved legitimacy. To go back to Barzun: “If you observe yourself when on the point of writing, you will notice that the words rising spontaneously to your mind are not the hard, clear words of a lover of plain speech, but this mush of counterfeits and clichés.”
THE FINAL WORD: Speaking of the silliness that springs from the coverage of sports, let’s erase “legendary” from our vocabulary.
As the dictionary points out, the adjective “‘legendary’ refers to something that may have a historical basis in fact but, in popular tradition, has undergone great elaboration and exaggeration.”
There have been athletes who fit that description – tales of Babe Ruth often seem stretched beyond what has been confirmed – but most excellent athletes of the modern era, even Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps, have had their histories carefully recorded.
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