Journalists should be fluent in standard English

The epigraph to Davis Grubb’s disturbing novel Night of the Hunter begins with this quotation from Moby Dick:

Who’s to doom [decide on a sentence] when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?

Grubb’s novel is about a murderer posing as a Christian minister. Other characters in the story trust him, only to find danger or death at his hands.

Maybe it’s overdramatizing, but I sometimes think of this quotation when I hear a news announcer say

doctors told he and his wife to expect a big baby,

or see a printed news story with the line

She must have layed down on the seat where the witness couldn’t see her,

or read in a published mystery by a best-selling author,

I grabbed a washcloth and rung it out with cold water.

Journalists, authors, teachers, editors, and others for whom verbal communication is a professional staple have a moral responsibility to be in control of standard English, its grammar, pronunciation, and spelling.

Award-winning journalist: doctors told he and his wife to expect a big baby...

Award-winning journalist: "doctors told he and his wife to expect a big baby..."

Readers and listeners expect these workers in words to speak and write correct English in formal contexts.

I’m not talking about typos in ephemeral news copy written to meet a deadline measured in hours, or a usage error that might slip from the tongue of a reporter describing events in a war zone against a background of flying bullets. I mean the day-to-day use of English by professionals in a staid professional context: a teacher (of any subject) or school principal talking to students; a television journalist reading from a self-prepared prompt script; an editor checking a MS for a Penguin imprint, a government official making an announcement, and so forth.

Language is not only the vehicle of culture, it is the vehicle of learning. The further students progress in school, the more confident and capable they should become in the use of their native language.

An educational system that produces college graduates who have trouble with standard usage is itself inefficient and unprofessional.

2 comments to Journalists should be fluent in standard English

  • Boheme,

    Is your prejudice-bearing anger directed at the author of this tutorial, or just at white Christians in general?

    Hogwash, huh? Here is a suggestion for you. You would do well to take a swig or two of what you are calling hogwash and gargle it thoroughly. One thorough gargling with it should give you some much needed enlightenment, plus leave a better taste in your mouth than does the tripe you are foisting gratis on the world.

    Here is another suggestion. I suggest you get on your knees and thank Maeve Maddox for freely giving of the fruit of her hard-won, broad knowledge of the English language, acquired over many years of study and practical application.

    The reason I suggest this last is your display of ignorance of why good, well-spoken English is so important in every aspect of daily life gives ample reason for others to be tempted to succumb to a feeling of superiority when you spout such tripe. They, of course, should not succumb to the temptation, but why tempt them so. Have mercy, why don’t you.

  • Boheme

    There’s no such thing as “correct English”. Who says they have a moral responsibility to adhere to any standards? They can write however they want, and their editors and publishers can refuse what they don’t like. Why would they have to use only standard English, and which standard should it be? Maths explained in a thick Cornwall or Kentucky accent would be just as accurate as when explained in a sterilized, boring standard language. Who, in fact, decides what “standard English” is? This is all a bunch of prescriptivist, white Christian supremacist [but wrapped in a holier-than-thou shroud of some kind, no doubt – probably “our children deserve quality education”] hogwash aimed to kill all flavour of language but, fortunately, doomed to fail because of its lunacy.

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