Media Matters

Words at Play

No happy medium between right and wrong usage.

By 4.21.14

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Datelined “Los Angeles,”  the news story began, “Social media has been buzzing for weeks...” Has they? I thought. Who would use the word “media” as if it were singular? The answer, of course, was anyone who had not been taught the difference between the two words, both derived directly from Latin (“media” is plural — always; a “medium” is  singular). For example, Facebook and Twitter are social media; Facebook by itself is a social medium.

As for those who were not taught the difference it is probably a large number of people, inasmuch as few public schools today teach spelling and word definitions, let alone grammar and sentence structure. In this case, though, the article was written by an Associated Press reporter who should know better. If not, his or her copy editor should have caught it. Either the writer or the copy editor are probably graduates of a journalism school. Alas, those schools seem indifferent to whether their students become proficient in English language usage.

Copy editors are essential to news organizations. Most importantly, they correct mistakes in spelling and grammar and often write the headline for a story. With heavy pressure on budgets, some newspapers have dispensed with discrete copy editors and spread the function among other editors. It shows.

English being an elastic and welcoming language, new words — neologisms, they’re called — are invented frequently. Some become well seasoned and remain; others fall by the wayside after a brief burst of fame and usage. “Elastic” and “welcoming” does not mean, however, that the language should be used recklessly by news reporters, whom readers expect to be correct. 

Misuse of  “media”  is one glaring example. There are plenty of others. Take “Intel,” picked up from up from intelligence-gathering agencies. Or, “intercept” used as a noun (it’s a verb; “interception” is the noun). These shortened and converted words are jargon in intelligence agencies. When those engaged in a field day after day a shortened version of certain words used by all in the field are a short cut that saves time. For outsiders, such as news reporters, truncating words and turning verbs into nouns doesn’t save a  nanosecond. Instead, they may use tthe jargon because they are lazy or, more likely, because it conveys to the reader, listener or viewer the idea that the reporter is delivering inside information. 

One nonsensical word coined in recent years is “proactive.” It is widely used today by public officials and is being picked up frequently in newspaper stories, although it originated in the business world. I first heard it several years ago from a corporate public relations man who said, “Our company can’t just be reactive, we must be ‘pro-active.’”  He didn’t mean “in favor of being active,” which would be alright. Rather, he meant, “We must anticipate events and be get on top of them.”  The right word for that is “active.”

Broadcast media interviewers and their guests have not only changed a verb to a noun, but in the process have created a newly pronounced word which involves a certain amount of tongue twisting. It is “Construct,”  pronounced “CON-struct,” as in “This legislation is a CON-struct that is likely to fail.” The owner of a construction business would be laughed at if he were to say, I’m in the CON-struct business.”  Although “CON-struct” is usually applied to policy or political propositions, “construction” is still the right word for such things and takes less time than to remember to pronounce “CON-struct.” 

The legendary Typhoid Mary carried the disease (though she didn’t have it herself). Reporters who spread bad word usage and tortured language not only infect their audiences, but also themselves have chronic cases of the disease. It’s curable, but would take acts of will the victims may not have.

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About the Author
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. He is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats.”