In our area, there's a popular extra-credit assignment from elementary and high school English teachers: Get out your blue pencil and proofread the daily newspaper.
Thanks to embedded spell-checkers, it's no longer a matter of hunting for misspellings alone; students are told to search for more serious infractions, such as misplaced modifiers, mistaken plurals and the dreaded "wrong word."
Split infinitives are a big favorite. With a little effort, the enterprising--and literate--student can boost a flagging grade in a hurry, courtesy of the "new breed" of print reporters and editors who appear less interested in style than in substance.
So what's the equivalent exercise for audio and video media?
True, it's much harder to redline errors in spoken text, or even on-screen graphics. I've tried grease-penciling the face of the CRT, but it's just not the same; and it's murder on the plasmas and LCDs. But is accurate, clear language any less important in nonprint media?
It's hard to even begin to enumerate the dozens of infractions we can all find each day. Ticker feeds on the major news channels are especially poor, compounding the mental challenge of caching and interpreting horizontally moving type by clumping it in incomplete and badly-stated phrases. Local television newscasts... don't even go there. Miserable.
It would be a cheap shot to pick on our beleaguered president's problems with mangled language, since for the most part, these gaffes are either unscripted (and, therefore, not edited and proofread), or qualify as a reading by a nonprofessional.
More startling is the illiteracy commonly seen and heard in locally produced spots and in nonbroadcast projects. The skills required to use language correctly aren't taught exclusively at Oxford or Harvard or even UCLA Film School; if you made it through 10th grade, you've got no excuse.
One of the short speeches I routinely deliver to clients at the start of a project involves the recognition that by its nature, television is a medium better suited to conveying a broad impression on a given topic, rather than delivering highly accurate, detailed data. Turn to a companion print piece to fill in the fine print, I often counsel. But to suggest that all video and audio scripts degenerate into soft masses of sloppy chat is to miss the opportunity to communicate well.
The rise of the blog as a form of writing hasn't helped. For the most part, there are few hard facts found in the blogger's ramblings, and that style seems to spill over into other language-based media as well.
Whether gauged by the price of airtime or by the viewer's eyeball time, visual media are too expensive for stream of consciousness (or, as one friend calls it, "stream of participle").
Often, casual talk is proffered in the name of reaching "the simple folk." Ironically, eschewing grammar and structure, whether by design or by accident, actually results in poorer accessibility and comprehension, not better; the "average" reader, listener or viewer is seldom served by making meanings less precise.
For me, this trend is beginning to transcend mere "pet peeve" status, provoking strong, if not violent, reactions to badly written or spoken language in public communication. I need a way to channel this rage, and so, as always, I turn first to the clients.
In most cases, they originate the script--bingo. In some cases, I may write the script; but while I may be a big fan of using plain language, I really try to avoid constructions that are out-and-out wrong. My first analysis: In this, as with so many other imperfections in the work we deliver, we are but hapless pawns, hamstrung, unable to control the quality of our finished product. Right?
To paraphrase the Bard: The fault, methinks, lies not with our clients, but with ourselves.
As the gatekeepers of our projects, it's our job to press for high standards in language. It's not enough to throw up our hands and say, "What can I do? This is the way the client spelled it." I've always wondered how sign makers seem to absolve themselves from all accountability when executing their customers' misspellings--"Fine Dinning," or "Chinise Food."
Mind your social skills, though. There's nothing a writer or producer or client likes to hear more than those two magic words: "You're wrong." Ego is a fragile thing, and offering to clean up problems in grammar or spelling needs to be a pleasant, helpful-seeming effort, not an indictment.
Among our roster of favored voiceover artists, one or two have the annoying habit of loudly announcing, "This script is terrible," in full earshot of the offendable party.
Most performers are happy to share a role in smoothing out the language they're asked to read, but a few seem to view every session as an opportunity to overhaul and rewrite on-the-fly. Walking into the session with a clean, proofread script is good insurance.
To be sure, we aren't all equipped with the skills for recognizing and correcting the fine points of verbal communication. And that's no crime--but as a professional communicator, be sure you've got such a person close at hand, ready to double-check your script, or your lower thirds, or even the label on the one-off DVD.
Whether in new media or old, one thing hasn't changed: Doing things the right way is the mark of the true professional, and when the competition gets tough, professionalism wins out every time.
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