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No. 33 for October 2004

Common Sense Journalism

Be kind to editors and writers

By Doug Fisher

In case you missed it, September was “be kind to editors and writers month.” Sadly, that month has passed, but it’s never too late to remember them with a smile, a pat on the back, or better yet, a “death by chocolate” brownie.

To commemorate (belatedly) the month, I offer this observation that originally ran on the CSJ Web log:

I saw yet another of my colleagues the other day looking as though his dog had died. "What's wrong?" I asked.

" I just gave a grammar test to my writing class," he answered.

In class, four or five students nominated “Training demands hamstring fire departments” as a “bad” headline. There's some debate, perhaps, but the crux was that they did not fully understand "hamstring" as a verb.

I saw a resume that noted the person had experience “tutoring unprofessionally.”

A professor at another university had posted on a journalism educators' list a compilation of actual sentences from essays in his freshman "Mass Comm and Society" course. His header says it all, "I couldn't make these up if I tried."

Friends, I've decided that many among us, as editors and educators, suffer from PGSS – Post Grammatic Stress Syndrome.

This is a serious affliction as we see a wider generational gap in language and decreasing shared cultural context (partly because of the fragmentation of the same media we are training our students to become part of), and as some influential organizations of English teachers appear to feel that teaching paragraph-level grammar is hegemonic (while business has yet to get that message). This should be covered by major medical. Why haven’t we heard from the American Association of University Professors? The American Society of Newspaper Editors?

Well, there always is the Apostrophe Protection Society.

Do you know someone who suffers from PGSS? Here are some warning signs:

  • The editor or professor keeps muttering "media are, media are."
  • The professor walks around with a paper in one outstretched hand like Diogenes, searching for a verb.
  • The editor or professor has barricaded his or her office door with dictionaries, usage books and the like and is shouting, "Stop, or I'll shoot!" with a gun pointed at an AP Stylebook.
  • The editor bolts up in bed in the middle of the night, flings open the window, and shouts: "It's 3 a.m. in the morning, and I don't care if that's redundant!"
  • The copy editor’s AP Stylebook is being used under the computer monitor to help tilt it down and reduce the glare. “Whole lot more useful,” she mutters as she moves her 60th story of the night.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen. PGSS lurks among us. Here's what you can do for your friends and colleagues exhibiting such symptoms:

  • With a reassuring hug, note that you recall at least one time recently where someone remembered subject-verb agreement or used "it" instead of "they" correctly.
  • you're at the grocery, acknowledge the pain in his or her debating whether to join the "10 items or less" line.
  • Make a hot cup of tea, tuck the person in a comforter, turn on CBS "Sunday Morning" and then turn the picture off. Let him or her listen and partake of the knowledge that it is possible to be conversational and grammatical at the same time. (I'd recommend NPR as well, but just yesterday its reporters kept telling us "the RNC hopes their convention ...")
  • If necessary, throw your body in front of the TV should Fox News or CNN be on. Serious side effects could result.
  • Go through the morning paper first and clip out all the offending items. If asked, say you were clipping coupons. If so many must be clipped out that it's too obvious, hide the paper, say the delivery person messed up again and you can’t get it redelivered because it’s after 10 a.m. – and then disable the Internet access.

It's only through your love and care – and proper use of the language – that he or she will get through this.

Doug Fisher, a former AP news editor, teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina and can be reached at dfisher@sc.edu or 803-777-3315.

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