“Words are the only things that last forever.”
—-William Hazlitt, English essayist, 1778-1830
Well, how about ink stains? We’ll never find out whether Hazlitt was right. But if he was right, we should make sure we get our words right. And even if Hazlitt was wrong, we should still get our words right. Right?
Because no one always chooses the right words and puts them in the right order, we try to learn from our mistakes and other people’s, the kinds we’re going to look at here. One such mistake popped up recently on all three broadcast-network evening newscasts. Can you spot it?
Exhibit A: “In Iraq today, two American civilians working for the Defense Department were killed in an attack near the city of Hillah. Their Iraqi translator died, as well…..” Died might suggest he died of fright; better: the Iraqi was also killed. Better yet: “Two U-S civilians and their Iraqi…were killed….”
Exhibit B: “Thirty-five miles south of Baghdad, on the road to the town of Hillah, two American civilian employees of the Department of Defense and their Iraqi translator were executed by terrorists disguised as Iraqi police manning a checkpoint.” Executed is the wrong word. As The Associated Press Stylebook says, “To execute a person is to kill him in compliance with a military order or judicial decision.”
Exhibit C: “Today, just south of Baghdad, gunmen disguised as policemen guarding a makeshift checkpoint ambushed and killed two civilian employees of the Coalition Provisional Authority and their translator….”
You have 30 seconds to report the mistaken word. I’ll wait, but not for long. Sorry, time’s up. The word misused is translator. Both the AP and Reuters also used translator in their accounts. The word they all should have used is interpreter.
In brief: interpreters speak, translators write. And careful writers differentiate. The Los Angeles Times stylebook defines the words this way: “”An interpreter orally renders spoken statements made in one language into another instantaneously. A translator renders written material into another language, in writing.”
If you’re not willing to accept that distinction, you can check with the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Two other words that too many newscasters use indiscriminately: podium and lectern. They’re not interchangeable. So a correspondent was wrong when he said:
“But most of the attention was being focused and most of the questions were not being answered by Kerry to reporters on the statement yesterday that he made when he was not at the podium.” Huh? The sentence is incomprehensible. Maybe the correspondent needed an interpreter. Remember, listeners get only one crack at what’s being said
in a newscast. They can’t read it, re-read it, or replay it. And can’t rip it out and reflect on it. Nor can they ask the speaker what he meant. And they shouldn’t have to. And yes, podium is the wrong word.
Another networker said:
“When he begins speaking, when he stands behind that podium, of course we’ll take you there live….”
And on another network, an anchor said:
“They’re going to step before the podium.”
So I have news for those three networkers:
A podium—from the Greek root for foot–is a platform on which a speaker places his feet.
A lectern—from the Latin word for reading—is the stand that supports the speaker’s notes. So a speaker stands at or behind the lectern, not at, behind or before a podium. Also, a speaker stands on a rostrum or in the pulpit.
Two other words that too many newswriters confuse too often: margin and ratio.
A national newscast said in a story about auto dealers and customers’ credit scores:
“And let’s say that quote is seven percent. They could then walk out of that room and walk up to you and say, ‘Well…we can offer you a loan here for this car at ten percent.’ And that three percent difference can add up to quite a bit of money….”
The difference is not three percent but three percentage points.
Another networker said, “…he is leading in some polls by a better than three-to-one margin….” Problem is, three-to-one is a ratio; there’s no such thing as a three-to-one margin.
A margin is the difference between two numbers (if Jill gets 750 votes and Jack gets 250, her margin of victory is 500 votes); a ratio is the relation between two amounts expressed as the result when one is divided by the other: 750/250. Because Jill won by a ratio of three to one, we can say simply that she won three to one. (And Jack took the tumble.)
Do you recognize what’s wrong with these sentences from a news network:
“First of all, he points out that he is the only candidate who can go on to beat George Bush. And he also points out that he is the only candidate who can really get those southern votes.”
The problem: points out. The reason: points out should point to a fact. But in that passage, the subject of the story was merely making an assertion. It was only an opinion. Or a wish.
Another pointer: A network correspondent said, “Three-point-five billion for the humanitarian relief and reconstruction of Iraq.” Point is not conversational, although at times there’s no way for writers to get around it. Better: “Three-and-a-half billion.”
A network evening newscast ran this lead:
“In Oak Ridge, Tennessee, today, the U-S government put on a show-and-tell of nuclear weapons technology
taken from Libya.” When viewers heard “Oak Ridge,” how many do you think hastily turned up the volume? A network editor taught me that starting a script with in and the dateline is “a lazy man’s way of writing.” That story isn’t about Oak Ridge.
Better: “Nuclear weapons equipment from Libya went on display today in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.”
I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to whether Hazlitt’s observation eventually proves right, but let’s get with the program just in case—and try to get it right.
The RTNDA Communicator published this column in August 2004.