Dennis R. Preston preston at PILOT.MSU.EDU
Sat Nov 3 12:48:19 UTC 2001

Spoofs are cool, of course; they call attention to folk language
regards which are "public," and us linguists should pay more
attention to them, but it's still annoying to me that linguists are
not routinely consulted by journalists on matters of language. When
this issue was presented on the national news some weeks ago, Tom
Brokaw waxed inaccurately on grammar, for example, and in this cute
spoof, more that half of the sentences violate constraints (e.g., "I
not kidding") on such elliptical utterances (and no hard evidence is
presented that such ellipsis was absent in earlier news broadcasts).

One of these days we need to think about forming a "truth squad" with
rapid deployment capacity in the face of linguanonsense.


>Is Disappearing
>What TV news doing to our precious verbs.
>By Michael Kinsley
>Salon, November 1, 2001
>To be or not to be? That remaining the question, the answer increasingly
>clear. The verb "to be" dying out, and the culprit? None other than TV news
>channels. Taking the place of such cherished words as "is," "are," "am,"
>even "were" and "was": a new verb form that you might call the
>one-size-fits-all past, present, and future participle. Or you might call it
>the one-size-fits-all past, present, and future gerund. One of these right
>and one of them wrong, but which which? Nobody really knowing the difference
>between a participle and a gerund. Anyone claiming to understand the
>distinction probably bluffing. So calling it what you wish: Either label
>What I talking about? Just listen to Lou Dobbs, the dean of news network
>anchorpersons, at the top of his show, CNN's Lou Dobbs Moneyline, on
>Tuesday, Oct. 30. Lou saying, "Top government officials today adding their
>voices to the call for Americans to remain vigilant." (I not kidding: These
>his opening words on that evening's program.)
>Lou continuing, after a couple of clips of politicians talking something
>close to normal English, "The president planning to do just that [just what
>not clear in context], scheduled to throw out the first pitch in game three
>of the World Series ." adding, "And new traces of anthrax, traces found in
>additional buildings in the nation's Capital today."
>Lou Dobbs not alone. (When serving as the lead example in a journalistic
>trend story, you never alone.) Nor limiting this trend to anchors-who, as
>gods among us, making their own rules. Ordinary TV reporters doing it, too.
>First, though, they must paying obeisance to the anchor-god with the magic
>words, "That's right, Lou" (or whomever-I not meaning to pick on Lou Dobbs).
>The anchor having just said something like, "And now to Washington, where
>MSNBC's Amanda Stakeout reporting tonight that President Bush spending the
>afternoon consulting by telephone with other world leaders. Any hopes for an
>early agreement, Amanda?"
>This known as the "toss." It remains a point of pride among anchors and
>those who write their scripts to summarize a reporter's story so succinctly
>in the toss that he or she having no choice but to begin by saying, "That's
>right, Lou." The reporter then repeating, murderously, "The president
>spending this afternoon consulting by telephone with other world leaders.
>Aides saying tonight hope for an early agreement. Back to you, you
>[unintelligible] . um . Lou."
>Wonderful about this universal gerundiciple, or whatever we calling it? That
>it working equally well as a substitute for the traditional past, present,
>and future tenses. "Madonna entertaining American troops in Peshawar this
>evening" could refer to something that already happened, something happening
>now, or something about to happen. The total effect making one dizzy. Past,
>present, and future melting together as every newsworthy event taking place
>simultaneously in some dimension beyond the reach of time, where man forever
>biting dog and yet it remaining news.
>What happening here? No easy answers but some uninformed speculation. Long
>part of vernacular English: referring to the future as the present. ("Honey,
>I'm meeting with Democratic leaders tonight in a spirit of bipartisan
>cooperation. Don't wait up.") Add the established convention of newspaper
>headlines-referring to the past as the present. ("House Passes Tax Cut.")
>When, as sometimes happens, there remains a need to refer to the present as
>the present, newspaper headlines leave out the "is" and its variants.
>("White House Considering More Tax Cuts.")
>So, TV news borrows the conventions of newspaper headlines. These
>conventions developing out of a need for compression, but after a couple of
>centuries imparting an automatic sense of drama and urgency. I suspecting
>the trend of TV news talking in headline-ese traceable to Rupert Murdoch,
>who buys the New York Post many years ago and founding Fox TV News more
>recently. The Post famous for its brilliant headlines. Fox News, though
>hypocritical about denying its brazen right-wing politics, the most creative
>of the TV news networks.
>But where it all ending? God knowing tonight. Back to you, Lou.
>Paul Frank
>English translation from Chinese, German,
>French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese
>Tel. +33 450 709 990 - Thollon, France
>E-mail: paulfrank at

Dennis R. Preston
Department of Linguistics and Languages
Michigan State University
East Lansing MI 48824-1027 USA
preston at
Office: (517)353-0740
Fax: (517)432-2736

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