Electronic media, television in particular, are marred by detestable mannerisms from unprofessional presenters

In advance of making a maiden speech (I cannot remember when or where) I was once advised, by someone who knew about these things, to select a face from the crowd and to address myself to that face.

‘Remember, you are talking to one person, not a crowd,’ he observed. ‘The crowd only exists from your point of view but each member of your crowd is an individual to him- or herself and has a right to be spoken to face to face.’

When I hear or see electronic media, especially TV, more often than not I find myself addressed as a crowd and I wonder whether anybody in media-land ever trains presenters to imagine that they’re speaking to just one person.

Consider this: I’m sitting in my living room and on to my telly appears the weather forecaster. ‘Good evening everybody.’ She begins.

‘Everybody’? She’s talking to me for God’s sake.

Then she goes on, ‘Some of you will need your umbrellas tomorrow…’

Some of me? Which bit – my arms, legs, head?

What she should have said, of course, was ‘Good evening to you. If you live in Dunedin you’ll need an umbrella tomorrow…’

And as for training, how is it that so many TV presenters, all over the world, have that mode of delivery wherein they accompany their narrative - as they slowly walk towards the camera - with jerky movements of their arms while their fingers are stuck out rigidly like starfish? Because they copy one another, that’s why! If I, the viewer, am extremely fortunate, the cameraman will frame a tight shot leaving out the spastic limbs. But I should be so lucky.

And while on the subject of professionalism, I read an article by Jane Clifton in the Listener recently in which she deplored the deterioration of New Zealand English. It struck me that the pronunciation and clichéd speech we receive these days is greatly driven by television and that, unfortunately, television is dominated by sport.

Interviews with sports people are often incomprehensible because many of them can’t speak clearly. They’re great ones for answering questions with ‘Yeah no’, and finishing sentences with ‘eh’. To our young people these putative role models might be heroes whose speech must be emulated.

Nowadays commentators of sport, especially cricket, are no longer professional presenters but re-cycled sportsmen. I don’t believe that one true commentator exists. Consequently we hear mangled speech such as: ‘reguly’ for regularly, ‘particuly’ for particularly, ‘opperchewy’ for opportunity and that description of a dropped catch as having been ‘put down’. Were I a fielder who’d dropped a catch I’d probably sue the commentator, it not only implies a deliberate act but is also a slander!

As for ‘twenny-twenny’ – I give up.

Comments (21)

by Ellen Read on March 24, 2009
Ellen Read

I couldn't agree more. A personal favourite of mine is presenters who don't understand when to use "me" and when to use "I" when referring to, well um, to themselves obviously.

And while I'm at it - I'm sure the vegetable was broccoli  when I was a child. Now it seems to be brocli. 

And don't even get me started on apostrophes.

by Chris de Lisle on March 24, 2009
Chris de Lisle

The changes you complain about in the second half of your essay are regular sound changes (Haplology and assimilation, respectively), a natural and inevitable result of a language being spoken.

Complaining about them makes as much sense as complaining about the loss of "thou," the pronounciation of 'nuncle' as 'uncle,' or the fact that we no longer decline our nouns by case and gender.

The version of the language that you are claiming as legitimate would seem just as perverse, nonsensical and foreign to our forebears as the  version that you are criticising. The version that they would hold as legitimate would itself be objectionable to their forebears, and so on all the way back to some six thousand year dead tribal dialect of the Eurasian steppes.

The first half sounds rather wise, though.

by Don Donovan on March 25, 2009
Don Donovan

I suppose that what you're describing is a sort of global English language climate change. The question is: should we try to retard it (for communication's sake) or let it go it's merry destructive way?


Thanks for your final approval; awfully kind.

by Don Donovan on March 25, 2009
Don Donovan

Oh, by the way, before you say it's its and not it's, I know, I know...

by Graeme Muir on March 25, 2009
Graeme Muir

I'm sorry but this seems like such a tired, old fashioned argument - has anyone had a moan about that detestable medium television recently? No? Well let me dust off an old favourite: tv presenters speaking lazily (why is it never radio?) and, ipso facto, there goes civilisation as we know it. Again.

The advice given to you prior to your maiden speech is similarly given in television with one salient difference: presenters are encouraged to imagine they are speaking to one person, not direct their speech to one person. When I was about 5 and that lovely lady on Romper Room used to say "I can see Henry, I can see George.." I believed she really could see me - however that artifice has been well and truly shattered over the years I'm afraid Don. People kind of know they're part of a mass audience...

What is encouraged is English how it's spoken by most people; the days of pompous news readers speaking with received pronounciation, no infinitives split, etc, are thankfully long gone. This should not be taken to mean that sloppy, ungrammatical English is encouraged; quite the contrary.

My first boss (excellent man, Ian Woodley, now working at al Jazeera) used to say to me when suffering through my scripts that read like a newspaper report: "This isn't how you'd tell me this story if you and I were sitting in a pub - make it conversational." 

That's how the best broadcasters do it.

by william blake on March 25, 2009
william blake


by Don Donovan on March 26, 2009
Don Donovan

Graeme: I did not exclude radio from my comment, I simply emphasized TV, vis: 'When I hear or see electronic media...' Neither did I suggest that pomposity should be the tone of delivery, God forbid.

My criticism was simply that commentators, especially recruited sports people, have, because of their lack of professional speech training, lurched into sloppiness; and talk-to-camera reporters into meaningless mannerisms.

By all means let's have our 'presenters' use demotic speech - but the top end of demotic rather than the bottom. And let us ask our reporters to stop waving their arms about.

by Barbara Browning on March 26, 2009
Barbara Browning

I disagree with Graeme Muir that the argument is tired and old fashioned. Rather, it appears what is being called for is that the English language be respected. I disagree even further that '...sloppy, ungrammatical English...' is discouraged amongst newsreaders and/or reporters. Almost on a daily basis news those in both camps demonstrate their inability to distinguish between the correct uses for less v few, and much v many - the former used for quantity and the latter used for numbers. And this is but one grammatical error. I guess over all it is an argument about the differences between the use of descriptive and prescriptive language - one that will never be solved. PS - Not only 'twenny/twenny' but what of the dreadful mangling of the greeting 'Kia Ora' heard particularly on One News 6pm Saturdays and Sundays? If our newsreaders are really being encouraged to speak grammatically and correctly, the same encouragement should be given to all of them to respect the pronunciation of the Maori language equally.

by Graeme Muir on March 26, 2009
Graeme Muir

The question I suppose then Barbara is to what level or standard is it to be respected? I find it annoying too when people can't distinguish between less and few but I hear that 'mistake' in all walks of life, not just from television reporters. Politicians, lawyers, doctors go on television and get it wrong too.

You claim it happens "almost on a daily basis" in both camps. Well, I can't speak for TV3 (disclosure: I used to work on One News, I now produce Fair Go for TVNZ) but I wonder.  One News' Fran Mold reported on Fisher & Paykel moving to a nine day fortnight tonight with the line ".. despite working fewer hours they still get a forty hour wage." One example doesn't disprove your claim but at least it's a specific example. (I quickly checked intros and scripts tonight, heart in mouth, to see if perhaps you were right and my former colleagues are indeed semi-literate. For what it's worth, there were no grammatical errors - not as far as I could see anyway.)

I strongly think the argument is tired and old fashioned; it's been around in op-ed pages since the beginning of television. The only difference now (and it's a welcome one) is the debate's moved online and it's not just those with access to print media - and its inherent vested interest - who get to frame the references of this debate.



by Don Donovan on March 27, 2009
Don Donovan

Graeme: the difference between television reporters (and other presenters) and those politicians, lawyers, and doctors whom you cite is that the television people are supposed to be professionals in their sphere and therefore in command of their medium - speech in English. We would expect a calligrapher to write legibly but we all know that some doctors can't write legibly, we forgive them for that as long as they do their doctoring to the best professional standard. Whatever course the horse is on the horse should know the course!

by Barbara Browning on March 27, 2009
Barbara Browning

Graeme - perhaps I was overly specific with my comment about hearing a particular grammatical error on an almost daily basis. I should have included the public at large. Nevertheless, language and the way it is spoken is a major part of our identity, and as long as people care about who they are, there will always be an argument between those who would have us all speaking perfect grammar in the way they themselves have been taught to do, and the others who don't mind the changes that come because of the inherent life within language itself. I am all for give and take on the issue, but there does come a point when ocassionally it is good to be reminded that good diction and grammar can be a pleasure to listen to, and both help set the standard for those who hear it. Don is a writer, and therefore words are important to him. I am a reader of and a listener to words, and their correct use is of equal importance to me. Therefore to such people the argument can never be tired or old fashioned - perhaps it might be better to classify it as an ongoing and most interesting discussion.

by Barbara Browning on March 27, 2009
Barbara Browning

And yep! I know it should be 'occasionally'...!!

by Graeme Muir on March 27, 2009
Graeme Muir

Don and Barbara - I formally retract "tired and old fashioned"!! This discussion has been anything but.."ongoing and interesting discussion" is much more apt. All the best. 

by Barbara Browning on March 29, 2009
Barbara Browning

Well said. But really, what hope is there when one of the present government's election hoardings in 2008 read "Better government. Less managers."? It's like, so wrong!

by Brian TLO on March 29, 2009
Brian TLO

Personally I believe there are two side to this ideology. One is yes it is important to get it right. While the other, and more importantly, it is fundamental that the communications are conveyed such that they are understood correctly. As one may be aware English is a bastardised language evolving from many different sources and that the Americans in their early days bought order to it that could not be achieved in England.

Should spelling dictate the pronunciation or the pronunciation dictate the spelling, or a random combination of both? Are not the laws that govern the English language varied and random? The English language is useful for poetry, science and technology because of this flexibility.

by Adolf Fiinkensein on March 29, 2009
Adolf Fiinkensein

Mr Donovan is absolutely right.

My pet hate is 'New Zilnd.'

If you want to hear the most gorgeously melodic and modulated diction with perfect grammar, listen to an older well educated Maori when he or she is speaking English.

I flew from Queenstown to Auckland yesterday with Air NZ and the lass who delivered the usually gabbled announcements was an absolute gem.  A pure delight.

Second pet hate is 'hot tempachers' instead of high temperatures.

by Adolf Fiinkensein on March 30, 2009
Adolf Fiinkensein

Sometimes but not often, a retired sportsman or woman can become a first class commentator.

There is no better example than the late Alan McGilvray whose ABC radio commentaries were legendary.  People used to turn off the TV sound and listen to his informed, lively and melifluous radio commentary.  The ABC even coined a slogan "Watch with McGilvray on ABC."

He was magnificent and no more so than in his immediate condemnation of the under arm stunt.

by Tim Watkin on March 30, 2009
Tim Watkin

I'm not sure why, but cricket seems to reveal the best players-turned-commentators. Many are brilliant story-tellers. In NZ, Jeremy Coney springs to mind. In Australia, well, there are so many, but Richie Benaud stands out. In the UK, I think of Jonathan Agnew amongst others. Now they have some command of the language! Why don't other sports achieve the same? Could it really come down to, well, class?

by Don Donovan on March 31, 2009
Don Donovan

Tim: I agree that cricket has thrown up some very good players-turned-commentators but their numbers are very small. Other sports suffer worse.

Class? Although I have lived in NZ since 1960 I still cannot see class as a substantial factor in our society, I really do believe we are classless. But education and intellect - those are where the difference lies. Cricket, by its very nature, being subtle and requiring careful strategies, requires a measure of intellect that rugby, soccer, league, netball etc don't. It's interesting that the rise of the unprofessional cricket commentator coincides with the introduction of two simpler forms of cricket - one-day 50-over and Twenny-Twenny, both successful attempts to make the game 'more exciting' and to pander to TV audiences with shorter attention spans.

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