Gimbling in the Wabe – Say It Ain’t So

by Sharon Browning

With all that’s happening in the world today, with everything that deserves attention and activism, this diatribe of mine may seem trite. But dang it, you don’t get a tetanus shot because you plan to step on rusty nails, you get it because you never know when you might get scratched by one. So I’m going to go ahead and rant.

The topic of my derision? The decay of language in online resources.

Let me preface this by acknowledging that none of us is perfect. There are bound to be occasional errors in whatever we as writers produce, regardless of the safeguards put into place. Heck, I myself still read past Gimblings only to find that I’ve misused a word in a spellchecking rush, or allowed a garbled sentence due to a sloppily executed copy/paste. (Once, to my horror, I was informed that I had misidentified an author’s earlier work in a review – by someone in the author’s family. They were gracious about it but I was mortified even as I rushed to fix the error; I still feel shame when I think about it.)

But I do not write for a professional website that caters to the masses and has a name-recognition reputation to maintain. I would think that these A-lister sites, the ones that garner hundreds or even thousands of hits per article would go out of their way to be perceived as sharp and at the top of their game. I am incensed when I  access such sites -usually via a targeted link – and find egregious errors of word usage, sentence structure, grammar, even spelling. Errors that could have been caught by a simple read-through before pushing the publishing button. And yet, there they are.

What set me off this time was an article posted by The Hollywood Reporter (THR) on February 21 entitled “‘This Is Us’ Creator Breaks Down the Show’s Cathartic and Tear-Inducing Farewell,” recapping the most recent episode of the wildly popular NBC television show (SPOILERS if you follow the show but haven’t seen the February 21 episode!). It contained the following indefensible errors:

  • A dropped word, and an incredibly convoluted sentence: “The episode also provided closure for William and Ricky as the duo were able to the resentment between them after William never came back to their efforts to make it big after leaving to care for his mother. ” Uh…. what?
  • Using an incorrect word: “How it wasn’t every week where he serviced all five or his storylines.” .
  • Poor sentence construction leading to confusion: “… William left Randall with a book of poems he had written for his son and some sage advice: let other people make his bed, drive with the windows down and the music up, and grow out that ‘fro.”  (What’s wrong with driving with the windows down or growing out your hair?  Why was Randall telling his son to let other people do those things?)

Because of these head-scratchers, other statements became suspect, such as this quote by showrunner Dan Fogelman:  “And I’ve always thought that it really informs Jack.” The quote relates to whether the actor’s laugh comes from the character, or the character’s laugh comes from the actor, so the word “informs” doesn’t quite compute. Maybe those were Mr. Fogelman actual words – when speaking off the cuff, it’s easy to say something that doesn’t necessarily translate to the written page. But with remarkable errors earlier in the piece, it calls to question if this wording is real or a transcription error.

Also, because of the “oh, well, I can’t be bothered” message served up by the language blunders, other statements took on the guise of unbridled hubris:

  • The term “bottle episode” was used twice without explanation, and its meaning was not discernible through context alone. While THR may be an “insider rag”, articles like this recap are certainly aimed at lesser entrenched audiences, and wording should reflect that.
  • At the end of the article, it was stated that This Is Usairs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC. Yes, it airs at 9:00 p.m., but only for part of the country. Standard usage is “9:00 p.m./8:00 p.m. Central”, or even 9/8c, if space is an issue. That’s not only proper, but it lets the rest of the country know that the writer is aware they exist.

Are these comments picayune? Yes. But because the bar was set so low to begin with, it’s easy for a reader to add insult to injury.

This article was posted at 7:00 p.m. Pacific Time (see? even the website specifies time zones), which means it launched immediately after the episode wrapped up on the East Coast. I’m sure there was a rush to get it visible as soon as fans flocked to the internet to discuss what they had just seen. Gotta get it up on Facebook right away so it gets the most hits!

But I can’t condone an excuse of “time sensitive” for the lack of review. Surely the bulk of this article was written prior to the airing of the show; the questions posed to Mr. Fogelman necessitated an understanding of the episode in question, indicating that the reporter screened it in advance. Even if for some reason the 300 or so words of recap were written in real time, it still would not have been difficult to do a quick read through during commercial breaks.

I will admit that this is not the first time I’ve had to question the integrity of the content processes at THR. A while back on this same site I read a recap that was so poorly written, many of the comments were about the incomprehensibility of the article rather than the targeted show. I honestly wondered if the writer had been drinking while writing that copy – but even if, how had it still been released?  Apparently there are no protocols in place to ensure THR’s recap content is appropriate and worth publishing. Seems irresponsible to me. Is THR really so secure with their position in the industry that they assume they can get away with such shoddy content?

To be fair, THR at some point recognized the two obvious errors in the This Is Us article and corrected them. The lack of clarity noted in my third bullet point, however, remains. Still, since the most obvious oversights have been addressed, I am more amenable to assuming that the “it really informs Jack” statement was merely a quirky turn of phrase. The hubris remains, though, as does my skepticism of the integrity of this site.

But it’s not just THR where you see these kinds of mindless, unnecessary errors – THR just happened to be the unfortunate site that most recently got stuck in my craw. This lack of copy editing occurs all over, even on strict news sites. Sometimes the errors are so ridiculous that they end up getting singled out and ridiculed elsewhere.

But when our online media resources do not hold themselves to a high level of accountability and accuracy, we all lose. The lowering of the bar on language online is, I’m afraid, becoming the norm rather than an anomaly. “Regrettably unfortunate” due to “budget restraints” and “personnel cut backs” are given as reasons for us to become comfortable with it, but that doesn’t cut it. The internet has become too much of a force in our world to let standards slide.

Ultimately, it’s neither here nor there that an article recapping the most recent episode of a popular television series is fully vetted before publication. What is a problem is that an online media source posturing itself to be authoritative and legitimate is not willing to ensure its employees (who are directly interacting with its desired consumer base) are adept at the very skills for which they were hired, whether due to a lack of accountability or in not being given the resources they need to be successful.

Language is too powerful to be used in such a slipshod matter, even in “light” entertainment. In the end, the eventual decay of expectations in the use of that language will show the disintegrating quality of our character as a society, as well. And I’m not comfortable with that.

~ Sharon Browning

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