Sin Tax

17 August, 2007

It doesn’t sound like a really funny word, but syntax is the key to much unintentional humour and miscommunication.

As a child I used to delight in Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes, limericks and riddles — as had a century of children before me. Syntaxually-challenged classified ads were a childish favourite: “For sale: grand piano, hardly used, by elderly lady with carved ebony legs.”

Hey, I was four!

Journalists can do it, too, and most of them are older than four.

Sometimes this leads to humour of a darker shade. The BBC reported the disappearance of a man in Nepal saying “he was last seen being dragged from his home by soldiers wrapped in a blanket.”*

The most devastating effect of Australia’s current drought has not been to the trimmed, green lawns and herbaceous borders of the cities’ suburbia, but to those who provide the crops and herds to feed this and other countries.

So overwhelming have been the consequences of the drought on the many farmers and graziers that some have been driven to take their own lives.

A common slug line for this sad statistic was: “One farmer commits suicide every fours days.”

Australia does not in general celebrate Groundhog Day. If only the solution were as simple as finding this one farmer endlessly recycling himself and stopping him before he does himself a damage.

*Anyone who sends me an illustration inspired by the soldiers wrapped in a blanket may have it included here. Use the “contact me” form to reach my e-mail directly.

Heard on BBC World Service, 31 August 2007.

What’s in a name?

26 January, 2007

Perhaps the greatest danger of modern media is that it perpetuates errors by continually referencing itself rather than any original source — to the degree that the error eventually totally occludes the truth.

Eventually, the error becomes the truth.

The reasons are many: laziness, time pressure, lack of professional training or basic education, ignorance, stupidity, herd instinct. None of them noble and all have the same result.

Maria SharapovaA trivial but really annoying example: these days, a very large proportion of female tennis players have Russian names which sports commentators appear to have great difficulty pronouncing (along with many English words encountered above a grade three primer).

For their benefit the World Tennis Association has published a guide for broadcasters. Sadly, this has eight out of ten seriously wrong.

The WTA’s response to criticism has been that along the lines that “this is how most Americans would pronounce them and the players would go along with that”.

The prime example would be one of the world’s highest earning and most successful women players, Maria Sharapova. Russian speakers assure me that this is pronounced “sha-RAH-pa-vuh”, as do authorities overwhelmingly and, most significantly of all, the lady herself.

Now here is the kicker. I have read reports of prominent sport and news broadcasters knowingly using the popular but incorrect pronunciation for fear of being thought ignorant!

Truly, the inmates now run the asylum.


Up ship creek

20 July, 2006

Last night, over three successive newsbreaks in less than 60 minutes, Australia’s Ten Network News first had Australians in Beirut “…booted off their ship”. Next we were told their ship had been “commandeered” by “an international organization”, the United Nations or some other country — take your pick. The third version was that Australia had been gazumped by those sneaky Canadians who took the ship for themselves.

Which ship was that, Ten News?

The ship chartered by the Australian government which failed to show up in Beirut at all? Now that would make it difficult for those people to board the ship and even more difficult for them to be booted off it.

That it never showed up would also make it difficult to commandeer (such a juicy, dramatic word).

That the ship Australia had chartered through a Turkish shipping agency failed to show had already been announced on ABC Network News — and possibly on other networks — by no less than the Foreign Minister. It was also disclosed that the shipping agent had charted the same vessel to both Australia and Canada and cheated both governments. It happens in times of crisis. It is called profiteering, and in a sense, that is what news reporting of this kind is doing, too.

For god’s sake, Ten News, this is one story you don’t have to beat up. I know that there is nothing more important than ratings, but just try to get a few facts right and this is already more gripping and distressing than your execrable Big Brother.

While on the subject of the coverage of the plight of those people trying to leave Lebanon; why does every news story need to shoehorn the proper noun Australian or Australians between ever few words? Everyone is not just “Bruce Hayak” but Australian Bruce Hayak. It is never “they” but “these Australians”. Has every personal pronoun has been banished from the journalistic lexicon. What is this spin and why is it necessary? We get the point. We know, we know. Enough.


Can’t smack Ten News for this because (Australian) Foreign Minister Downer used the word in an earlier reference to the “Whose Ship is it Anyway?” game. For the Australian government to be gazumped, Canada would have had to have known that the ship’s agents had finalised a deal with Australia then jumped in with a higher bid at the last moment. There has yet to be any suggestion that this is what happened. The only party who knew about both deals seems to be the corrupt Turkish shipping agent.

Go get ’em, Ten News. Sic Sandra Sully onto them. That’ll fix ’em.