‘Pronounced Dead’ Resurrected Three Years Later…

It may interest you to know that in 12 years of writing for a Jamaican newspaper, the only time i was censored was when i sent in a column mocking the execrable language used in both print and broadcast media here. That column mysteriously never made it to print and i knew better than to make a fuss about it at the time. There is nothing though to prevent me from publishing it here three years later–just keep in mind that the dates referred to in this piece pertain to the year 2005. Oh and i should mention that i was reminded of the existence of this column when i read the Coffeewallah’s latest post on hoof-in the mouth journalism in Trinidad and Tobago. Coffeewallah! great name that–

‘Pronounced Dead’

What I wanted to talk about this week were the distortions of the English language one frequently hears and reads in local media reports starting with the much abused phrase “pronounced dead”. This term often appears in radio newscasts recounting police shoot outs where “shots were fired”, “the fire was returned” and then “the injured men” (rarely members of the police force) are taken to hospital, where “upon arrival” they are invariably “pronounced dead”.

In fact “reports have revealed” that those lucky enough to somehow survive such encounters are often left “nursing gunshot wounds” while hapless “motorists” in the vicinity “are urged to exercise caution”. In less deadly encounters we hear that a grade 10 student allegedly “traded blows” with her principal; naturally “a tussle ensued”.

I don’t know how many of you have been “pounced upon” by a duppy or a gunman yet but no doubt we have all been exposed to situations where knives are “brought into play”. The best story I ever heard though was actually in a TV newscast some years ago; it seems two cars had collided and the policeman who took the reports was then himself involved in an accident when on leaving “the scene” he was “pounced upon by a number of cows” apparently intent on colliding with his car. Fortunately for the policeman in question his injuries were minor and he escaped being pronounced dead “upon arrival” at a nearby hospital.

Weather reports are little better and we often hear that one island or another is “being lashed by” wind and rain. To make matters worse weather reporters seem to specialize in weird accents so that in the height of the hurricane season I’m sure I heard a headline that said “American Golf Course braces for Category 4 hurricane”. Another one announced that “Hurricane Rita is heading straight for the American Golf Course” while “Part of Spain” was also “preparing for a possible hurricane hit”. Fortunately my Trini friends in Part-of-Spain were spared the worst of that storm…(of course now, three years later, we’re about to be beset by Hurricane Hike).

The newspapers, all three of them, are some of the worst offenders in terms of purveying bad English, not merely circulating quaint or hackneyed language mind you, but the most egregious errors. Let’s start with this paper (Sunday Herald) which on December 4 informed readers that “the case lied dormant for four years…” A columnist in the October 16 edition averred that “In the face of Rita, 20 senior citizens similarly infirmed perished in a bus, as it burned, caught in a gridlock outside Houston caused by those trying to flee the possibility of Katrina par two”.

If you think that’s bad check out these bloopers in the Observer; their proofreader must have called in sick the week of August 14 if one is to judge by the following howlers: “There has been an expulsion in the number of providers of such services over the past 15 years. From the days of one television and two radio stations.” Another column urging people not to distort the facts of the Air Jamaica hub didn’t hesitate to distort the English language. If the airline continued to “loose money” in a period of prosperity asserted the writer it would probably have lost money even under the best management. “It is even more sad that a hotelier who clearly benefited from the extraordinary growth of the airline and more importantly an airline that gained the confidence of the tour operators and travel agents. A hotelier who new first hand that…”

A Gleaner writer, not to be outdone, wondered in a November 6 article why we couldn’t be like Japan,“Why did your ancestors turn a blind eye to the plight of my ancestors and did nothing to help?” he beseeched. Well, probably because the Japanese would commit hara-kiri before allowing a blunder like that into print. The Gleaner’s proofreader was definitely out to lunch that week for in the same edition an article on ‘Ritchie Poo’ Tyndale claimed that the fugitive, considering himself safe in the remote village of Black Shop, “soon adopted to rural life”.

If only the Gleaner and the other papers would adopt a proofreader or two…in all these cases its hard to blame the writers, for depending on the pressure under which stories are written errors are bound to creep in. That is why the humble proofreader exists and for a small fee she or he will keep such errors to a minimum. Proofreading and copy editing are standard practice in newspapers all over the world so it is not clear why the local media is trying to economize in this essential area. One can only hope that this habit of not proofreading the news will soon be pronounced dead. Upon arrival, of course.

PS: The Bitter Bean’s critique of the current Gully mania, Hurricane Gustav and the Politics of Hot Air, is worth reading. Check it out…

Author: ap

writer, editor and avid tweeter

29 thoughts on “‘Pronounced Dead’ Resurrected Three Years Later…”

  1. In keeping with the theme: For the seven years I was serving my sentence, my high school principal referred every festive/ religious/ celebratory occasion with the phrase, “And what a beautiful experience it was indeed.” In fact, my introduction to this Touretic utterance came from the older girl standing behind me, who, just before Mrs. A took the mike, whispered the phrase in perfect imitation.But on to more impressive things.About ten years ago, this memorable, if improbable, report filed in a daily newspaper from some Part of Spain:“Landau had been murdered, shot and buried alive.” In that order I presume.A report on an incident of porcine molestation in South Trinidad:“The fiend who had committed this dastardly act fled and escaped into a near-by abattoir.” How appropriate. I never heard if the pig pressed charges.And finally, the radio is not to be excluded. Recently, an announcer in full conversational mode (in between spinning 80s pop and more recent musical disasters) was deploring the state of the nation: crime, murders (which, of course, are not crimes), questions of governance, etcetera. She said (wait for it…), she said it made her feel, “like she was living in a third world country, full of poverty and violence and the government just doesn’t care.” Well, imagine my relief to know what we’re not.Wait, there’s another “last”. Also radio. It was once reported that a man had been fatally wounded in [insert your choice of violent episode] but was now recovering nicely at the San Fernando General Hospital. See, miracles do happen. Or maybe he was a luckier relative of the afore mentioned Landau.Fair to fine with a few scattered showers, with waves less than one metre in sheltered areas and up to two meters in open waters,

  2. Annie, this article might be three years old, but it is still so relevant. The truth is that those who run the papers care more about the advertising than the editorial content. Articles are just included so that all the ads don’t look overcrowded.I have to admit though, it’s something to live in a country where a policeman, or anyone for that matter, can get pounced on by cows. I had no idea cows could pounce – with the possible exception of the one who made it over the moon.

  3. Annie,although three years old,this is still a very relevant and important piece with respect to journalism in Jamaica.ESTEBAN AGOSTO REID

  4. Sadly this is true, just last week the Observer had a headline on their editorial page saying something like “Disaster at Badrid Airport”…Bitter Bean, it is so depressing to think that the editorial content is viewed as filler material to prop up ads!will the PAJ ever put this on their agenda? how can the press level criticism at any sector of society when they put out such a substandard product themselves? Alas these self-serving media outlets are anything but worldbeaters! yet they editorialize and pontificate on such a range of issues. let them put their houses in order first.

  5. Annie – I am very glad you posted this. The one thing we can bet on these days is that little is changing; this post is as relevant today as ever. I have lost count of the number of complaints I have fired off to the various editors and writers in the past year where I pointed out their latest bit of editorial slackness. They play fast and loose with language as well as plain Google-able facts. One from the Observer actually told me that she was glad I wrote to her because it meant I was reading the paper. Not a word nor effort to do better till now. If the new PAJ leadership don’t have this issue on their agenda, then they really not as serious as they claim to be.

  6. Oh Gawd, I love it! You see, some days I read the newspapers with a red pen, some of this stuff is so unbelievable it’s hard to imagine that someone wrote it with a straight face. Of course it speaks to the deficiencies in the education system or is it just an inability to run spell and grammar check? Wonder if they know you can get it in “English” too?

  7. Thanks for your responses you all. the errors continue apace. yesterday the Gleaner continued the trend in its editorial no less:”…Jamaica, whose economy wrests primarily on tourism…”Something MUST be done to arrest this creeping idiotization…something like highlighting these errors on a weekly basis and giving awards for the most priceless blooper.contact me to discuss this further.

  8. The errors are often hilarious. What could possibly beat “Part of Spain”! And some reveal hidden truths: “Jamaica, whose economy wrests primarily on tourism”. The most worrisome part is that, other than illustrating the sloppiness of local editorial practices, the “pronounced dead” narratives also reveal an appalling intellectual dishonesty. Our newspapers know perfectly well that those routine police reports conceal more complex and sordid stories and they should make more effort (correction: MUCH more effort) to uncover and report them.

  9. oh yes, you hit it on the head Veerle,the errors are one thing but the more fundamental point is what this kind of language covers up as you point out…the most sinister and deadly policing practices especially for those at the bottom of society thought the killing of Spragga Benz’s son ought to set off alarm bells in Upper St Andrew as well…

  10. Back when I worked for the <>Gleaner<>, in the Old Stone Age, one of my jobs was to go over the paper in the morning and report on the errors that had passed the proofreaders. There were quite a few. I was chided when errors passed me — including the report that garbage collecting was going to be put on a ‘two-shit system’.

  11. thanks for your comments Fragano. i’m not interested in crimes against the English language in general. student errors are understandable. This however is the media which claims a kind of didactic function, certainly ‘the watchdog of democracy’ etc etc ought to be particularly careful in whatever language it may be…Hindi, Farsi, Kikuyu whatever…i mean how can the print media which routinely editorializes about raising and maintaining standards in wider society itself have such shoddy ones?incidentally read today’s Gleaner editorial…you don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. all the ambivalence of the hurry-come up is in full display. Titled No Fear of Speaking the editorial writer is ostensibly celebrating the fact that Jamaicans need not worry themselves about the fact that Usain Bolt is to appear on three major US TV shows where he might let them down with the poor spoken English past athelets have been afflicted with.The editorial itself is written in the clumsiest, most inept English. Here’s a sample: “That we need not fear Bolt fumbles the English baton on his one-man relay of the mammoth American cable TV talk shows is testament to the progress of athletics.”…”With the emergence of the tertiary lever (sic), home-grown student athlete, pioneered and dominated by the University of Technology, much of this seems to have changed.”You see the problem?Absolutely bathetic, and no that’s not an error, its what i mean to say…

  12. Bathos I was taught about, Annie, though I suspect the editorial writer at the <>Gleaner<> might think it was a Greek method of cleansing.‘The English baton’, I presume, was used in preference to an American baton during the Olympic relay. I do see the problem: a compound of pretentiousness, inadequate education (a perennial condition,alas), and simple ignorance. Remember, throughout the Anglophone Caribbean an educational system designed for a small upper class has been stretched to serve the entire population without any real thought as to how it is to do that, and without any real commitment of resources to the task. It is no wonder that most of what it produces are shining mediocrities.

  13. that said, i do acknowledge that ‘tertiary-lever’ students as the Gleaner puts it should be held to a higher standard…i think the Gleaner should return to the Stone Age when according to you they at least had two barriers to catch bloopers. you i’m sure were a formidable and reliable final safety net. today it seems there isn’t even one…or worse, the very sub-editors who’re supposed to guard against such problems introduce errors into your article on the pretext of ‘correcting’ or ‘editing’…

  14. When I left the <>Gleaner<> it was about to sack all its proofreaders as it computerised; subeditors were supposed to take over the responsibilities of proofreading the text. That worked well.When I was there, one of my colleagues was Curdella Forbes who wrote a regular column on English usage under the pseudonym of ‘Mary Smith’. I once induced her to write an analysis of a press release written by Byron Balfour, then press secretary to Prime Minister Seaga, which contained, shall we say, more than its fair share of errors and solecisms. (The prime minister ‘strode stately’ into a hall in Toronto to make a speech, but the effort of speechmaking was apparently so debilitating that he could only ‘shuffle out’ at the end, if I recall correctly.)

  15. I plan to blog about that editorial this weekend. I found it so insulting and pretentious; I actually read it twice because I was sure I had misunderstood what they were trying to say. I didn’t. These so-called editors can’t even coin a decent sentence and here they are gladdifying that we/they won’t embarassed by some streggeh athlete who can’t talk proper english representing us on international tv. I guess we forgot what language is spoken by the majority, yes? That streggeh is usually quite adept at dem patwa; maybe that’s what they should have been allowed to speak in the first place. These editors cannot say the same about their command of english. I actually edited one of these editorial once, and sent it back to them. I didn’t receive a reply of course, but it felt quite satisfying to do so.

  16. Eagerly i am anticipating your next post on self-same subject (oh no i’ve been reading the Jamaican newspapers too much! see how it has stilted my English?)Fgsl: Had no idea Mary Smith was Curdella! for some reason i thought it was Sylvia Wynter’s brother, Hector…

  17. Hector did use that pseudonym too (both before and after Curdella). I don’t think he’d have appreciated being thought of as merely Sylvia’s brother.

  18. Who is <>Sylia<>, what is she that all the swains commend her?Back in those days, Sylvia was known only to the ‘university community’ while Hector was a power in the land. These days, I expect, he is forgotten while her reputation continues to rise.On the only occasion I encountered her, she told me that I struck her as not being Jamaican. So I suppose that I, with a Jamaican father and memories of having lived fourteen years on the rock, am not. Fortunately, I do have other identities on which to fall back, otherwise I’d be completely bereft.

  19. wow, that’s what we need here but as you say witholding breath might result in early demise…they’ll never acknowledge their mistakes. we just need to keep highlighting them. maybe we should create a special blog and different people can contribute what they find or something.

  20. The so-called errors made by Byron Balfour over thirty years ago are now laid to rest with him. May he rest in peace!

  21. Annie, this post is as timely as ever – in 2010. Our failure to communicate well in English makes me cringe. Can we really wonder about the CXC and CAPE English pass rates when in fact the daily newspapers, which I had to read while in high school in Jamaica, provide barely any examples of how one writes clearly and effectively. Often, I simply avoid reading the Jamaican newspapers until I’ve gathered the mental strength to handle the grammatical errors. And even then, the errors assault me like nails on a chalkboard. I simply cannot understand how even the most basic subject-verb agreement is ignored, to say nothing of proper word usage (affect/effect, etc…). But, let me not go on a tear about this; you have said it all, and quite well.

    1. Thanks Cuke! yes, the errors are appalling, not just in print but on radio too, Jamaicans have a serious problem with subject-verb agreement. what i find funny is that ppl will go to great lengths to get their grammar right according to some dated notion of what’s right, so they’ll sound really stilted but correct, instead of going for colloquial accuracy. so you’ll hear a prissy “To what are you referring?” (God forbid you allow a participle to dangle) or “The truth is that the reality of which Ms Tavares-Finson speaks…” and then go and fall down on the most basic subject verb agreement–

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