Friday, March 07, 2008

Public radio should maintain standards of language

One of the functions of public radio, it seems to me, is the maintenance of high standards for the language it uses for broadcasting. In general, I believe that NPR and WMUB accomplish that. Certainly, the language we hear on NPR is head and heels over that heard on most commercial radio stations where the lowest common denominator of vernacular English seems to rule. However, I still hear a number of common but incorrect uses of language at the local, regional and even national NPR levels that I find grating.

One of them is the tendency to use the word “more” with an adjective that has a comparative form. Recently I heard a reporter from Columbus use the phrase “much more narrow” when, in fact, the phrase should have been “much narrower.” This morning I heard a woman interviewed use the phrase “much more safe” when she should have said “much safer.” I can forgive the interviewee for her error because she is only saying what she hears; but it is much more difficult to overlook the same error made by an NPR reporter from Columbus, Oxford, or Washington, whose reporting ought to be conveyed in flawless English.

Another similar problem is the use of “less” when “fewer” is correct. We don’t want to pay “less taxes”--as we so commonly hear—we want to pay “fewer taxes.” “Less” is used correctly with a collective noun such as water, gravy, or traffic while “fewer” is used correctly with a numberable such as dogs, books, or cars.

These and other language errors are so common today that they have almost become standard English rather than merely common misuse. I would like to see WMUB, Ohio Public Radio and NPR make a concerted effort to avoid these sorts of errors and maintain the highest standards of English. To believe that the listenership is not affected by the language used in broadcasting is to ignore Marshal McLuhan’s famous dictum that “the medium is the message.” The medium may not be the only message, but it says a lot.

--Bob in Oxford

[A comment: in a response to Bob and his further reply we agreed that "fewer taxes" is somewhat ambiguous (does it mean less money, or a smaller number of individual taxes?) and that "less tax" is the best option to illustrate his point -- Ed.]


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