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Turn that thing off

My learned colleague Bill Walsh appears to be an even-tempered and amiable fellow, talking and writing reasonably about English usage. His workshops at the American Copy Editors Society’s conferences are genial and low-key. I can’t say that I’ve ever heard him raise his voice, certainly not in anger.

But when someone couples an with a lightly stressed han historic, for example — it gets up his nose, as the Brits say. You can see that from his comments on “Don’t get in an huff”:

Broadcasters tend to say "an" and then a very, very strongly aitchy "historic." I would say "an HHHHHHHHHistoric" qualifies as wrong, even if you look the other way at "an istoric" or "an (h)istoric."

I guess I also cry foul at those who say HHistoric this and HHistoric that but then say istoric when and only when an indefinite article is called for, FOR THE SOLE PURPOSE of saying "an." Putting the cart before the orse, you might say.

I suggested, mildly, as is my custom, that it’s “not even among the top hundred idiotic things broadcasters do or the top hundred irritating affectations,” to which Mr. Walsh replied, “Bring on that top-100 list!” So it’s a challenge.

The problem is that I stopped watching local broadcast news some time back — you know how I get — and therefore can only make a start on such a list. I have to depend on the rest of you to flesh it out. For starters:


Using whom when the pronoun is the subject of a clause: The car was driven by a young man whom police said fled the scene.



disinterested for uninterested or apathetic

enormity for “some big thing”

ironically for coincidentally



Sounding the t in often

Pronouncing comptroller as comp-troller rather than con-troller

There should be a special category for the finicky hyper-pronunciations on classical music stations — Bach uttered as if the announcer suffered from catarrh, or a Spanish name pronounced as if the studio were in the foothills of Andaluthia.



HIV virus

mass exodus

safe haven



In cop-speak, people are ejected from cars, not thrown.



You can be sure that if there’s rain at a parade, someone will say that it didn’t dampen the spirits of the participants.



rain event for rain

white stuff for snow



One Baltimore station broadcast a series on testicular cancer for which the title was “Guarding the Family Jewels,” apparently unaware that family jewels for testicles is (a) vulgar and (b) badly dated slang. Are we in 1955?




Posted by John McIntyre at 9:58 AM | | Comments (17)


Oh, John, you've got me in an huff. I worked in radio for 10 years and offer up these transgressions:

The highway is VERY jammed. (Jammed kind of says it, no?)

More traffic in minutes. (Actually, another traffic REPORT in minutes, or your next UPDATE in minutes.)

Tragic death (Aren't they all?)

Evacuating people from a scene (Only places can be evacuated.)

ANY cop-speak, like: The body was found vital signs absent.

Thanks for letting me unload. An helluva good topic!

How about never using the past tense?

Good topic, but why pick on broadcasters? These faux pas are just as common in print!

Gary, newspapaper writers are certainly guilty of using cop jargon and a host of other bad habits. But I am proud to say that editors like John (and I had the brief privilege of having him pick at my copy) can often be found whacking them out of these habits. I think my writing improved for having received his fearsome brow-beatings.

Saying "backslash" and "dash" as parts of a Web address when they mean "slash" and "hyphen."

In the same vein as your "rain event," saying "weather conditions" when "weather" gets the job done all by itself.

"Bach uttered as if the announcer suffered from catarrh, or a Spanish name pronounced as if the studio were in the foothills of Andaluthia."

Well, isn't the general rule that you should pronounce names the way the bearer does it, though, rather than the way you would like to read it?

I mean, "McIntyre" will sound very, very different if I were to pronounce it the way I (as a Swede) naturally read it; my name, "Janne", is, when pronounced the way naive English-speakers tend to do, unrecognisable to my own ears.

And that's without getting into pathological cases such as Japanese given names that sometimes have zero connection between the name as pronounced and the characters used to write it (in English it'd be something like "Hi, my name is Harold but I spell it 'ecclesiastical coffeepot'").

Pronouncing "height" as "heighth" (to match "length" and "width," I guess).

Cancel used for Postpone. This happens so often that I have begun to wonder if the useage or, perhaps, the common meaning of cancel had changed or, alternately, if the word postpone had ceased to exist.

On matter of print/internet, just last week The Sun ran a headline on this site that read, "Man shot in buttock during holdup." I realize that any chance is reference a backside is snickeringly funny in that middle school way, but the subsequent article never did reveal whether it was the alleged perpetrator or the victim who was shot, in which it would be much-less-to-not-at-all funny! The reporter was obviously proud of this nonreporting, as she had a byline.

Re tragic deaths: actually, few deaths are tragic. But that's one of my complaints about broadcast lingo: the degeneration of the word "tragic" to mean "sad." It makes us poorer for the loss of a complex and powerful word.

"They chose Bob and I as finalists." I almost never hear "--- and me" used properly on the air, and it's even getting rare to see it in print.

"rate of speed" instead of speed.

You nailed one of mine (“comp-troller” – “con-troller”). Here are two more:

“First foray” (it’s redundant) and “cavernous” (when they really mean large).

Other newswriting constructions, in print and in broadcasts, that still irritate this copy editor:

-- "six-month anniversary" (Associated Press writers and editors violated their own stylebook this weekend in stories about Haiti. Newscasts today, however, changed the wording to "six months since the hurricane." My complaints may have had an effect.

-- impact (noun or verb): The overuse and incorrect use of this word and its related forms by news people and their interviewees has diminished its ... impact. The correct words are effect (noun and verb) and affect (verb); influence or consequences.

-- today's (or the possessive of any day, as in "today's announcement": Today is an adverb and cannot possess anything. It tells when and should follow the verb or the noun it modifies.

-- told a press conference: A press conference is the setting or the event that reporters attend. The reporters can be told something, but the event or the setting cannot hear anything.

-- comes (or came) as (or amid), as in" "His visit comes amid ..." A visit, an announcement, an attack, a move and most other events cannot come or go. Someone visits, announces, attacks, moves. That's what happened. When I read or hear these widely used constructions, I ask: "Who teaches this writing?"

I could go on, but I'll save it for another day, or I'll write a screed for AJR or CJR, eh?

Broadcasters seem INCAPABLE of pronouncing the second f in fifth.

Well Stephen, just a couple of thoughts.

Both Random House and The American Heritage Dictionary show "Today" as a noun and adjective in addition to being an adverb. A possible noun use would be something like: "What day is the wedding?" "Today."

A conference can be an event, or it can be a group of people. Again, I depend on the AHD.

I could go on, but you get the point.

@Michael Buckley: I rarely hear the second f in fifth pronounced and don't pronounce it myself, despite my lack of broadcasting career. I don't think you can blame that one on the corrupting influence of microphones.

@Carol: I strongly agree with you about the overuse of the word tragic, but think the debasement of the word hero - now routinely applied to every police officer, firefighter, and military serviceperson - results in an even greater loss.

I once worked for a program director who insisted on pronouncing "symphony" as "sympany." It's nothing to do with (wit?) microphones. He's from Massachusetts. And some, but not all, Spanish names require that little lisp. Alicia de la Rocha comes to mind. Bryn Terfel simply confounds most people, but as he's Welsh, and most people are not, it's understandable.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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