common errors in English things people say that I hate

The (poor) language of journalism – a lot less bad?

© CorbisWhy is it that journalists seem to think that they are allowed the greatest licence when using the English language? Why do they not feel bound by the same linguistic restraints as the rest of us? Often they make up brand new words to describe something in a way they feel that no existing word can. Recently, on BBC Radio 4 News, I heard a three-pronged problem facing the prime minister referred to as a ‘trilemma’.

At times they slough off the bonds of redundancy in language. Yesterday morning I heard another journo refer to an issue that was on all of our collective consciences. I’m sure this was meant to be on our collective conscience. Perhaps he was being paid by the word. They’ve even freed themselves from the chains of understanding parts of speech. During a recent report, a journalist claimed “This terrible, wide-spread crisis – whatever synonym you want to use to describe it”. Surely she meant to say adjective as terrible and wide-spread certainly aren’t synonyms.

The credit crunch seems to have given rise to even more sloppy language. Just today I listened to a commentary on the financial report issued by Marks & Spencer. The journalist said that it was “a lot less bad than was expected under the circumstances.”

There also appears to be a resurgence of the (mis)use of two comparatives. A lot has a connotation of value or amount whereas less has the opposite meaning. I can’t find an exact term for this other than to describe it as a paradoxical phrase. Although, in grammar, comparative forms of words can be ‘terms’ or ‘phrases’. So it’s perhaps more accurate to identify it as the misuse of ‘two comparative forms’.

Time Magazine Online has a headline that reads “Is the Economy Starting to Recover? Or Just Less Bad?”. The only thing ‘less bad’ is that they managed not to put a lot in front of it.

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Shane Rae


  • Interestingly, the word trilemma has been pushed to the fore by a historian (Niall Ferguson). See this Guardian article. The use of this word is normally restricted to more subject-specific domains (e.g. economics, philosophy), but the current global financial crisis – as illustrated by Kerry Maxwell’s article – is very productive in extending the use of words to more general contexts.

  • My favorite journalistic ridiculosity was when a closely-contested political contest came down to a run-off election between the male incumbent and the female challenger and the fearless cub reporter chose to term the contest a “mano a womano” combat.

  • I know this is not directly concerned with the topic but as president of LAFS ,the Less and Fewer Society, I wish the BBC would get that right and not demonstrate the growing trend to losing the word “fewer” from the language.

  • Trilemma is actually not a “made up” word and is certainly not brand new. While it is not used often it has been in use since the 1840s and is even used in theoretical phrases such as Bayle’s trilemma and the Munchausen trilemma. The Lewis trilemma refers to C.S. Lewis’ Christisn apologetics proposal that Christ could only be a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord.

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