I knew it was time to resume this blog when I saw, in big letters on a local TV newscast:
TAKING BACK THE REIGNS
Either no one at the station proofread this phrase before putting it on the air, or whoever did doesn’t know the difference between reign and rein. They arehomophones — words that sound alike but have different spellings and meanings. A reign is the period of a king or queen’s rule (the reign of Elizabeth II); reins are the leather straps used by a rider or carriage driver to control a horse. Holding the reins is an idiom that means being in control, and that was the point of this particular report. (As for a more recent Channel 7 report about a death-with-diginity case — titled One Her Own Terms — that was just plain sloppy. It should have been On, of course.)
Yes, even media professionals who are native English-speakers commit such lapses from time to time. In the new academic year, international students are making plenty of lapses of their own — understandable, and forgivable if they learn from their mistakes before they go pro. Here are a few I’ve spotted this semester.
Typewritten on what appears to be an old typewritter, the investigators hope that the note will lead them to the robber.
This sentence has two flaws: repetition (typewritten and typewriter) and a dangler — a modifying phrase or clause that “dangles” from a sentence because it’s misplaced. Such a phrase needs to be as close as possible to what it modifies, or describes. As written, this sentence says the investigators were typewritten, which is not, I believe, what the writer meant to say. Here’s a rewrite that fixes both problems:
The investigators hope the note, which appears to have been written on an old typewriter, will lead them to the robber.
Another student was confused about English idioms when she wrote:
Front page is a sophisticated photo, and when people flip over it, they can read a short article that covers the minimum daily news that they should know before arriving at work.
What she meant was flip it over, which means to turn something upside down. (Flipping burgers, for example, means a job standing at a grill turning the burgers with a spatula to cook both sides evenly.) To flip over something or someone means to go crazy over it, or become very excited about it: Gidget flipped over Moon Doggie the minute she saw him. It was love at first sight. No doubt the student hoped her target audience would flip over her project, too.
The same student wrote about a hall in one whenshe meant hole in one — a golf term that has come to mean success on the first try.
Another student used the wrong preposition in an idiom:
Cyclists try to avoid pedestrians when they are on their way.
On the way means something or someone is coming: Help is on the way. What this student meant was in their way, meaningan obstacle.
In the same audio report on accidents in Central Park, the student said:
The death of Jill Tarlov 10 days ago definitely rose their awareness.
She meant raised. Rise (present tense; rose is simple past) is an intransitive verb, one that doesn’t take an object, as in She rose from her seat.Raise (past tense: raised) is the transitive form, meaning to lift or increase something — in this case, awareness.
A second-year student was mixing her metaphors when she wrote in a business story:
With buybacks’ momentum cooling down in the third quarter of 2014, economists argue that companies should figure out a better way to put the excess cash rather than pour it into its own stock investment.
Momentum is a force in physics, measured by multiplying a moving object’s mass by its speed. Cooling down refers to temperature — also a measurement, but one not related to momentum. In choosing momentum as a metaphor for the trend in stock buybacks, the writer needed to complete the thought using terms more closely related to it. Instead of cooling down, she might have said With buybacks’ momentum slowing . . .
Finally, in a story on Airbnb, a first-year international student wrote:
Bedford-Stuyvesant is seeing its streets filled not only with cheap backpackers in their 20s but also older tourists.
First, let’s not called the backpackers cheap; when applied to people, it means either miserly or vulgar and unworthy of respect. (A famous quote from Dolly Parton: “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.”) Instead, the backpackers are seeking cheap — inexpensive — lodgings.
Then there’s the phrase Bedford-Stuyvesant is seeing . . . It’s become a knee-jerk (automatic, reflexive, as when a doctor hits your knee with a rubber hammer) journalistic convention to say that something without eyes sees, or an abstract concept brings something (Fall semester brings a new crop of material to the English for Journalists blog). Instead of falling back on these constructions, find a more precise way to say what you mean:
The streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant are filled with backpackers in their 20s, but also older tourists seeking cheap lodgings.
Now you know what I mean when I say “I’m going to harvest this sentence” from your copy. You know who you are.