Thursday, 12 January 2012

bbc english

Do you shout at the television set? I certainly do. Almost the only programmes I watch nowadays are the news bulletins, so you might guess that I’m upset about the bias being shown. The BBC is frequently accused of bias, but this isn’t what annoys me. Bias, if it exists, is easily seen through. My gorge rises in response to sloppy, imprecise use of language, which is all but ubiquitous in the modern era.

‘BBC English’ used to be touted as an exemplar of how my native language should be spoken, but if it still is then something is seriously wrong. The BBC is as guilty of shoddy use of language as every other media outlet providing news coverage. The standard of its journalism has slipped alarmingly in the last two decades, which probably reflects the abandonment of the teaching of English grammar in the UK that began with the introduction of ‘comprehensive’ education in the 1960s (for non-British readers, ‘comprehensive’ here refers to the heterogeneity of a school’s student population, not to the breadth of the curriculum).

The item that caught my attention on the BBC World News last night was not an especially egregious example of this trend, but it is entirely typical of the state of play. According to the newsreader, a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist had been killed by a ‘car bomb’ in Tehran. This sounds reasonable enough, and you may be wondering why I took exception to it. However, a car bomb is a car used as a bomb, while the unfortunate nuclear scientist was actually killed by a bomb attached to his car. To compound the error, the newsreader continued by stating that the bomb had been attached to the underside of the car. This part of the report was voiced over footage of the scientist’s car, the top of which was covered by a blue tarpaulin. The underside of the car was clearly undamaged, but despite the tarpaulin it was possible to see that the passenger cabin had been severely damaged. The bomb was in fact a high-tech magnetic device attached to the side of the car.

The error was repeated this morning on the BBC News website:
The US condemns the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan in a car bomb attack in north Tehran.
Is this pedantry? I think not. It is merely my reasonable expectation that when someone speaks, or writes, they set out their thoughts in a clear, precise and unambiguous manner. Pedantry is insisting that a word like ‘agenda’ is plural (technically it is, but it would be pedantic to labour the point).

Because, as I outlined above, the BBC’s use of English is now so lamentably poor, I propose to highlight particularly egregious examples from time to time. In fact, I’ve just found myself guilty of what I accuse the BBC of doing: its use of English is not merely poor, as I’ve suggested; it’s a-bomb-inable.

other posts in this series
Grand Slam.
More or Less.
Making an Impression.
Explaining Science.


  1. I am very much looking forward to this. By comparison to my peers I'm quite a pedant, but I really see myself as a bastion of good language and grammar. A decent education in grammar and also in Latin has helped me, and is what others are so badly lacking- I don't know if you use Facebook, but if you saw the things people my age wrote.... I agree that precision is important, especially in media like the BBC. In NZ we often get news presenters speaking of 'kids' and 'cops' which is a different type, but equally annoying!! I agree the 'agenda' being plural is a bit pedantic, as it is plural in another language and it's a moot point as to the effect of the incorporation of foreign words into English. Just like 'media' being the plural of medium- it would be pedantic to suggest you should really follow Latin grammatical rules in your own language, especially when a word takes on its own meaning upon incoporation. Anyway, quite looking forward to your musings!

  2. Thank you for such an extensive comment Ben. You are extremely lucky to have the opportunity to learn Latin nowadays. My old school hasn’t employed a dedicated Latin teacher for years.

    I agree that English ought to be able to employ its own rules for plurals, but if you’re going to use the Latin plural, for heaven’s sake get it right. Third declension nouns are a particular problem (I once edited a book in which the author insisted that the plural of foramen (as in foramen magnum) was foramina!!!).

    As for Greek: how many times have you seen ‘phenomena’ or ‘criteria’ treated as singular?

  3. Dennis, I am with you. Full disclosure, English is my second language and I do sometimes make mistakes. That said, I agree the precision of language is important and it annoys me as well when people that ought to know better propagate a wrong meaning of a term.


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