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I am inviting Forum members to team up with me in doing My Media English Watch. This way, we can further widen this Forum’s dragnet for bad or questionable English usage in both the print media and broadcast media, thus giving more teeth to our campaign to encourage them to continuously improve their English. All you need to do is pinpoint every serious English misuse you encounter while reading your favorite newspaper or viewing your favorite network or cable TV programs. Just tell me about the English misuse and I will do a grammar critique of it.

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Usage of ‘on the ground’ idiom in official circles getting out of hand

I’d like to share with readers this rather provocative e-mail from business columnist Oscar P. Lagman, Jr., asking me to comment on the frequent use nowadays of the phrase “on the ground” by personalities in the news. He thinks that their overuse of the idiom is “inappropriate,” saying that it reminds him of my oft-said comment in my columns that “at the end of the day” is annoyingly overused by media and government officials.

Mr. Lagman wondered how and why the mechanical use of the phrase “on the ground” came about in the following statements:

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on the Davao City bombing incident: “There are still suspects on the ground.” Former Amb. Jose Cuisia on the United States as a reliable ally: “The US was first on the ground in Tacloban after Yolanda.” Fr. Ranhilio Aquino of San Beda Law commenting on Edgar Matobato’s testimony in a Senate hearing: “If he has evidence on the ground…” Sen. Richard Gordon during the Senate inquiry on extrajudicial killing: “…the facts on the ground.”

Social Welfare Sec. Judy Taguiwalo: “…responders on the ground.” University of the Philippines Prof. Clarita Carlos: “…operational teams on the ground.” Sen. Riza Hontiveros: “The UN has been talking on the ground.” And an unnamed TV announcer covering a basketball game: he referred to “the players on the ground” instead of “the players on the floor” or “players in the court.”

Mr. Lagman then pointed out that CNN reporters understandably use the expression “the forces on the ground” when reporting military battles, as in the recent coup attempt in Turkey and in the assault on the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, particularly when the video clip of the latter shows only ground troops advancing towards the city without any air support or naval support.

My reply to Mr. Lagman:

As you observed above, the idiomatic phrase “on the ground” indeed has its mainsprings in journalistic reporting from places where war or fighting is taking place, whether a battlefield, beachhead, or bastion under siege. In general, events “on the ground” are where things are actually happening, not at a distance, as in the sentence “The watchers will be monitoring developments on the ground.”

Among the Philippine examples you presented, only Defense Secretary Lorenzana’s remark that “There are still suspects on the ground” would qualify as a literally appropriate usage of “on the ground,” for indeed there had been actual fighting between government forces and rebels in Davao. Perhaps Amb. Cuisia’s remarks using “on the ground” in the US relief effort in Tacloban after Typhoon Yolanda might also qualify for that usage, for it was a major operation to help thousands survive the ravages of hunger, disease, and deprivation.

In contemporary times, however, “on the ground” can now be used to mean any place or any field of endeavor where anything serious or critical is happening. Even so, unless the speakers you quoted sincerely believe that what they are undertaking is so crucial that they can be considered “the moral equivalent of war,” I don’t think it’s appropriate to use “on the ground” in their respective statements. That phrase would be semantically off and grammatically needless, even sounding like an affectation.

Indeed, Fr. Aquino’s “If he has evidence…” would have sufficed without the gloss of “on the ground,” Sen. Gordon could have simply said “…the facts,” Sec. Taguiwalo could just have referred to “…responders there” and Prof. Carlos to “…operational teams there”; and Sen. Hontiveros could have just said “The UN has been talking…” That simple.

As to the unnamed TV announcer covering that basketball game, referring to “the players as being “on the floor” or “in the court”—not “on the ground”—would have marked him as an authentic sportscaster rather than a possible war freak doing a much less tamer asignment.

This essay appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times in its November 19, 2016 issue, © 2016 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.

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