English Language and the Media

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* Article first published in Fortell, May 2011 issue.

Words are but a means of communication…strung well, they make a good sentence; woven with skill, they hold the target’s attention. For the mass media, that target could be a newspaper reader, a television viewer, a radio listener, an Internet surfer or user of an advertisement, some or all of them. This convergence of media in the digital age has subtly changed the way we communicate, and language has been equally affected. Thus “bite” no longer denotes just a function of our teeth; we also have “news bites” on television or on websites. An effective communication comprises a good choice of words, the right syntax, a judicious placement of adjectives or adverbs, and maybe contextual imagery or an apt idiom to complete the picture.

The multiplicity of communication channels underscores the need to get this combination right in any piece of journalistic work. Often, a strong visual on television fails to impress because the accompanying commentary does not do it justice. A trained ear may detect the absence of, say, the correct verb and possibly lose track of what follows. For example, “impelled” cannot be used when the right word is “compelled”. This could put off a discerning viewer. His attention broken, there is a chance he switches channels, and you lose him.

If there is a scroll accompanying the visual, the writer must be as careful. A misspelling, for instance, “sovreign”, is jarring (this happened on BBC), and makes viewers wonder why the television reporter or anchor is sleeping on the job. They may not know that an entirely different department carries out this duty. A misspelt or mispronounced word does disservice to the viewer; a good script can keep him riveted. So whether it is the reporter, the anchor or the scriptwriter, they must know their language well. Similarly, a trained eye can get caught on an incorrect sentence. It could be the writer’s fault; it could be that the rewrite desk messed up or the copy desk failed to catch the error. Anyway, it disappoints intelligent readers, and some do actually complain. My duties at Mint included penning “Corrections & clarifications”, where we owned up mistakes and acknowledged feedback on errors.

Gross Neglect of Basics of English Language

Read the following:

“m very cool & help full boy”

This is an example from a self-description put up by a Facebook member, incidentally also a Delhi University graduate. Though not a brilliant example, it is illustrative of the bigger picture: a growing neglect of the basics. One cringes at such howlers. The Internet, newspapers, magazines, advertisements and so on are replete with them. Look at this other example: The following caption was spotted on the NDTV website:

“The Dhobi Ghat stars – Prateik Bubber, Monica Dogra and Kriti Malhotra – had field day to judge a photo exhibition”

An obviously poorly constructed sentence/caption faltered with spellings too! ‘Babbar’ is misspelt.

I distinctly remember, my school principal, an Englishwoman, would exhort us to listen to Lotika Ratnam (plz give reference!………) for diction and read the newspapers for current affairs and good English. Regrettably, we can no longer say that.( why……….)

There is a tendency to shrug off as routine any feedback on errors or omissions. The US-based Columbia Journalism Review is a valuable resource for journalistic introspection. But the Indian media is not on that track yet: It’s all right if poor language turns off some—there are others who will read on. This disregard for others’ views, though, ought to be discouraged from the learning stage itself. An informed opinion holds great value, and absence of feedback cannot be a licence for mistakes in language.

A Keen Eye

A well-written piece will have simple English, appeal to a cross-section of readers and skip use of jargon. It should be well-researched, have pertinent information that a reader can use, and to the extent possible, spell-checked at every stage. A writer loses nothing by running a spelling check on his own copy; a copy editor is duty-bound to run one again before sending the final version for publishing.

Even so, a computer’s spell-check program is not foolproof. It simply ensures that a word is in conformity with the dictionary fed into it. Typos can be very embarrassing, to say the least. The “Spelling and grammar” tool on the computer may point out grammatical errors, but rarely bad or incorrect usage. A journalist must have a keen sense of the language and a keener eye for detail, or “ample” could go as “sample”, “blind” as “bind”. A computer can’t detect such mistakes.

A simple yet recurrent error that completely alters the meaning of a sentence is the presence or absence of “not”. The scientist had not intended to harm the boycan easily be turned on its head if “not” is missed or deleted: The scientist had intended to harm the boy.”

The context will decide whether the scientist did or did not mean to harm the boy. An incorrect version will puzzle the reader, and that should be avoided at all costs. It is best to check back with the original writer or source if the sentence seems out of sync with the story line. But it will be caught only if the person handling the text is alert and alive to the nuances of the language and distortion of meaning (see picture).

Incorrect use of “a” and “an”, “their” and “there” are some other common errors (see list). Again, note the erroneous “is” at one place: “The issue is whether it will match expectations, some of which is misplaced, given that India is at present the second fastest growing economy in the world.”

When in doubt, Ask

Sometimes those who edit a copy tend to distort the meaning out of sheer ignorance or a misplaced sense of importance—a belief that they know better. A word one may not have encountered, such as “discrete”, could end up in a “discreet” avatar. We must discourage such over-confidence; it is better to reach out for the dictionary than assume. To the extent possible, it should be our constant companion at work or study. Or, as some newsrooms stress: “When in doubt, Ask.” Ask seniors, colleagues, juniors, but do not let a mistake go.

Easy recourse to dictionaries online may be affecting the use of the physical book, but consulting them is desirable nevertheless. A good vocabulary is definitely an advantage, but a dictionary is a great friend. Websites have the luxury of being able to rectify an error, but on television, what’s said once or written on the screen cannot be recalled or corrected; the printed word too, once in the public domain, is out of one’s hands. Put to best use, dictionaries teach you the right pronunciation as well. Be conscious of the following:


(Words similar, but not interchangeable)



































A Sense of Grammar

Punctuation is being given short shrift nowadays. At my last job, for example, my colleagues in a section dealing with highly technical financial stuff could never figure out why I would remove the question mark they regularly put after headlines such as “How to calculate your tax liability”, “What this implies” or “Where you should invest”.

Journalists tend to drop or introduce commas and apostrophes at will. Two eloquent instances:

A headline—“Talwars’ to approach court, says lawyer”

Talwars’? To what or whom does the possessive apply?

A sentence in a newspaper report—“The incident took place at a spot, which is close to the police station.”

Don’t all incidents take place at some spot or the other? The comma is redundant; so is “at a spot which is” because of what follows next. It would also save five words in the process.

This illustrates the need for brevity, though never at the cost of clarity.

Economy Pays

Language is used best with an economical use of words. Space being at a premium, we must describe a development and its implications in minimum words with maximum effect. Command over the language can help find the most apt expressions without sacrificing the essence of the message. Comprehension and précis writing are skills that help in clever crafting of news, views or profiles. Reading opinion pieces contributes to such skills, because these edits are compact and often written or edited by the best in the business. At my first workplace, we were encouraged to solve crosswords and jumbles and play word games in our free time.

As language is dynamic, prejudice has no place in the realm of words. One has to recognize and accept that the language is assimilating new words, phrases and coinages, changing in step with the times.

Aspiring journalists must be encouraged to constantly update themselves, not only on news but also on the latest developments in the language. They ought to consult the dictionary and thesaurus frequently, and practise their synonyms and antonyms. Even avid readers can repeatedly err in elementary grammar. To become good anchors, columnists or commentators, they must respect the language and love to spar with words; they could browse through books such as A Dictionary of Wit, Wisdom and Satire or English Idioms and how to use them. After all, good communication must be simple, but smart too.

Look out for the Reader

Assiduous reading with attention to detail and internalizing usage are excellent ingredients for journalistic enterprise. A writer must ensure that the reader is not left to figure out things for himself, or made to go over a sentence twice to understand it. Our primary duty is to the consuming public. Caring for the end-user’s point of view will ensure that we never fail him.

Works cited:

  1. Herbert V. Prochnow and Herbert V. Prochnow, Jr. A Dictionary of Wit, Wisdom and Satire Castle Books, 2005
  2. Columbia Journalism Review www.cjr.org
  3. http://www.ndtv.com/album/detail/spotted-priyanka-and-her-7-grooms-9012/6?cp
  4. Jennifer Seidl and W. McMordie English Idioms and How to Use Them. Oxford University Press, 1978

Harjeet Ahluwalia is a a freelance writer and business journalist with three decades of experience with The Financial Express, The Economic Times, The Pioneer and Mint newspapers.


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