Tune In to TV, Tune Out to Language

A recent nationwide survey shows that children 10 to 14 think television influences them to have sex before marriage, to regard money as the main goal in life, and to make them disrespectful of their parents.

It is thought-provoking to hear from children what everybody else already knows--that television is bad for you.

Movies on television such as "Indecent Proposal," in which multimillionaire Robert Redford offers a young married woman $1 million to spend one night with him (and she does), tend to support such conclusions.

I think television is not only corrupting our moral behavior, but also degrading our language. It is shocking that shows that have more obscene language than a Marine Corps barracks are hailed.

I have no doubt television is partly to blame for the plethora of teen pregnancies. If Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone can do it on the screen outside marriage, why not us?

But I am against censorship. TV movies are gamy because people like them that way. As I have often admitted, I myself like a good sexy movie, though I've had it with screen violence.

I certainly wouldn't like to see TV go back to the morality of the Hays Office, when a sexual encounter was suggested by wind blowing the curtains, but a little restraint wouldn't hurt.

The damage goes deeper than sexual morality. It's my opinion that TV movies are damaging our language. People used to read. Now they watch TV. If we learn the language by hearing it, and not by reading it, the language will suffer.

The Times itself, which should be a model of literacy, suffers from this fact. Although newspaper reporters are of necessity more literate than the average plumber, the younger ones may be losing their fine-tuning because of their addiction to television.

Hardly a day goes by that one can't find a misused homophone in the paper. A homophone is a word that sounds like another but is spelled differently and has a different meaning. Plane and plain, for example. Or hair and hare. Or gnu and new.

No one is likely to write gnu when he means new, or hare when he means hair. But the homophone error is so common that even more unlikely examples of it may be found.


Recently, a local newspaper (not The Times) wrote in a headline that a certain heir (not air) apparent was giving up the thrown.

There is only one explanation for this kind of mistake. When the language is learned by television, one never sees a word spelled.

Most of these errors are so outrageous that you can hardly believe they got past a proofreader. But the old-fashioned proofreader, who wore an eyeshade, chewed tobacco and was armed with a stubby pencil, is no more. Those old curmudgeons may have been grumpy and cynical, but they "gnu" the language. It isn't that we don't have proofreaders today, but they probably aren't grumpy enough.

The Times is about to publish a new stylebook--a manual to guide writers in the use of the language. It will be a miracle of research and judgment. It will advise reporters that 18-year-old girls are not girls, but women ; that the F in French fries is capitalized, and that graffiti is both singular and plural. It also advises that forgo and forego are not the same.

However, it does not furnish a list of homophones. As I say, there are hundreds and a mere list would not fix them in a reporter's mind. One must learn which is which by visual experience. By reading.


Iused to be a great reader. I read "War and Peace" when I worked on the night desk of the Honolulu Advertiser. I read "Les Miserables" in high school.

I have read hundreds of books. But today I am lucky if I read one a month. I am a couch potato.

That is a phrase brought into the language by television. It means a person who is so addicted to the tube he sits there on his couch, like a potato, mindlessly watching TV, commercials and all.

I am also given to "channel surfing," which means using your hand monitor to search through the channels for something sexy or violent, or maybe the latest on O.J. Simpson.

I'm not saying television is all bad. For example, "The Three Tenors" was great. I like old movies, even when sex is suggested by wind blowing the curtains. I love football and tennis.

However, I learned words by reading, so I know the difference between hare and hair and between hoarse and horse. And I haven't given up.

Some day, I swear it, I'm going to read the Bible, top to bottom, find out what it's all about.

* Jack Smith's column is published Mondays.

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