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Just in: Anchors sink grammar

Special to The Times

Milk sales are up, NBC’s Peter Alexander reported last month on “Nightly News.” What Alexander said was this: “America’s favorite drink at home now becoming a popular choice for families on the go.”

Not “is becoming” but “now becoming.”

This strange syntax is getting more common on television news, observes language columnist Geoffrey Nunberg in his recent book, “Going Nucular: Language, Politics and Culture in Confrontational Times” (Public- Affairs, $18.95).

It was prevalent two weeks ago throughout election night and its aftermath.

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“For the second election in a row, the long night turning into a long morning in a race that’s too close to call for now,” said CNN’s Bill Hemmer as he signed on that Wednesday morning.

He later announced, “The White House declaring that President Bush has won his reelection.”

Earlier, Wolf Blitzer threw it to analyst Jeff Greenfield by saying, “Jeff, Wisconsin going for Kerry, according to our projection.”

Just how common is this style of speaking in broadcast news? In a study of three NBC “Nightly News” broadcasts for a lecture at Oxford University, James Vanden Bosch, English professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., found that about two out of every five “spoken units” (sentences and fragments) in the broadcasts used this "-ing” form.

Some newscasters have argued that this style saves time, but that’s seldom true. “Now becoming” takes a little longer to say than “is becoming.”

Another explanation is that TV is copying newspapers, but newspapers usually prefer to save space by dropping the "-ing” and making a complete sentence: “Wisconsin goes for Kerry.”

Grammar mavens aren’t sure what to call this new style (and if talking about grammar causes you to break out in hives, you might want to skip ahead). It looks like an absolute phrase -- which modifies an entire sentence, as in, “That being said, I liked the movie overall” -- but it doesn’t act like one.

Absolute phrases are sentence fragments, but when they are joined with a complete sentence, they make sense. When they stand alone, they don’t. No one says, “That being said.”

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Sentence fragments are nothing new in TV news; Chevy Chase parodied them in the 1970s with his catchphrase “Here now the news.” But this new kind of fragment may illustrate the heightened urgency of news in the era of cable and the Internet.

“It communicates a breathless awareness of immediacy,” says Vanden Bosch. “There is an almost manic insistence that this is all late-breaking news, and that I alone have come to tell you.”

The problem is that making everything happen in the present can be confusing.

In the case of Blitzer’s statement, “Wisconsin going for Kerry,” a viewer could misunderstand whether Wisconsin was leaning toward Kerry (“is going”), had just been awarded to Kerry (“goes”) or went for Kerry earlier (“has gone”).

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This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune.


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