Author Topic: When media permits a grammatically flawed official statement to see print  (Read 6642 times)

Joe Carillo

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If you are a reporter for an English-language media outlet, what’s the proper way to report the official statements of people who speak in less than impeccable English? Do you quote them verbatim—grammar errors and all—for total and uncompromising journalistic objectivity? Or do you correct their statements for grammar and usage errors so as not to embarrass them and avoid foisting bad English on your readers or listeners?

Of course, English-savvy reporters and editors faced with this dilemma routinely do the right thing—quote  statements verbatim when they are truly quotable and free of grammar errors, or else paraphrase those statements when they aren’t really quote-worthy and are grammatically faulty as well. But sometimes, when reporters or editors lower their guard or are themselves not very proficient in English, they let pass quoted statements that reflect very badly not only on those who gave or uttered them but also on those who reported or edited them. 

This is what happened in the case of the quoted statement I dissected in the essay below, which I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2006. I am posting it in this week’s edition of the Forum as a practical lesson in grammar and usage as well as an exercise in basic copyediting. (September 18, 2011) 

An exercise in reporting a grammatically flawed statement

Assume that you are a reporter of a major daily newspaper and that you have just covered a media conference of an international foreign-aid organization. During the conference, the organization’s highest-ranking official in the country said these exact words in English: “The best time to prevent bird flu is now. Until the cases are low, let us stay ahead of the epidemic.”

Something is terribly wrong with that statement’s English, of course, and you’re sure that the speaker wasn’t misquoted because you had taped the interview. But your deadline is only two hours away, so you must decide right now how to deal with that statement in your story.

What will you do with its bad English?

(A) Quote the exact words of the speaker. It’s true that its English is faulty, but since the statement came from a well-educated medical professional, you feel that every word of it should be respected and retained. They are not your own words, after all, and you’re secure in your belief that people who talk to media should be held responsible for their bad English. If it gets printed verbatim and embarrasses them, that’s just too bad. Your job is to report the news accurately and clearly, not to correct other people’s poor English.

(B) Analyze the grammar and semantics of the statement carefully to see how best to report it. You believe that no respectable paper should give room for bad English, whether attributed or unattributed. You know that when reporters habitually allow bad English to creep into their stories, they can seriously jeopardize not only their reputation but also the integrity of their information sources and of their respective newspapers.

Some newspaper reporters and magazine writers are sometimes tempted to take the line of least resistance by choosing option A, but for any self-respecting journalist, Option B is actually the only prudent course of action. We will therefore assume that most of us have chosen Option B and are now ready to find better ways of expressing the problematic direct quotation presented earlier.

The English of the first sentence, “The best time to prevent bird flu is now,” is arguably good enough so we’ll let it stand as is. That of the second sentence, however, is seriously flawed and confusing: “Until the cases are low, let us stay ahead of the epidemic.” The speaker has wrongly used the conjunction “until” to mean “up to the time that,” in the sense that a particular state is not yet achieved. But she acknowledges that the particular state being referred to (“low”) already subsists or persists, so the correct conjunction to use is “while,” which means “during the time that.” “Until” is an illogical, semantically wrong substitute for “while” in this particular sentence.

Next, the speaker commits another serious gaffe when she inappropriately describes the noun “cases” using the adjective “low,” which is intended to mean “of lesser degree, size, or amount than average or ordinary.” In English grammar, such usage doesn’t make semantic sense. We can’t describe “cases” of a particular noun, such as bird flu, as either “low” or “high”; there can be no “low cases” and “high cases.” It is the incidence of “cases” that can be described as such. To give an idea of their relative numbers, the adjectives “few” and “many” (or “numerous”) should be used instead.

The speaker’s use of the phrase “stay ahead” in her second sentence, although not strictly wrong grammatically, is also questionable semantically. The verb “stay” denotes “pausing,” “ceasing,” and “remaining,” thus giving a strong sense of a stationary state rather than a forward movement, which is obviously what the speaker wanted to convey. Since the verb “keep” more appropriately conveys the active effort needed to maintain the condition of being ahead, “keep ahead” would be a much more suitable phrase.

When we take all these clarifications into account, what emerges as the grammatically and semantically correct way of saying what the speaker actually said is this: “The best time to prevent bird flu is now. While its incidence is still low, let us keep ourselves ahead of the epidemic.” Another correct construction is this: “The best time to prevent bird flu is now. While the cases are still few, let us keep ourselves ahead of the epidemic.”

Of course, we must remember that we can’t present these two improved versions as the exact words of the speaker herself. It’s a time-honored convention in journalism that once we make substantive changes in the speaker’s exact words, we can no longer treat them as directly quoted material. They become a paraphrased statement, which does away with the quotation marks that set off verbatim statements from their attribution. (January 4, 2006)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, January 4, 2006 © 2006 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.