'Big English': the noise that kills the message

Fri, 15 Feb 2013 Source: Ansah, Kofi

At the time of writing, “presidential edifice” and “petitioners praying to court” are the latest journalistic fad. Not a day goes by without our news writers bombarding us with such jargon.

In Ghanaian news reporting parlance, when people speak their mind, they have “opined”; when they make a guess, they have “surmised”; and when they drop a hint, condemn an action or mention something (indirectly), they have “intimated”, “decried” or “alluded to the fact”.

What happened to the news writing ideal of striving to make the majority of readers understand news? Why confuse readers with “impede on (sic) the fundamental human rights of men and women” when the humble word “stop” or “prevent” can drive home the message more easily? What is the value in twisting into a mangled mess the clear and concise words of a person quoted as urging the police not to “stop these men and women from exercising their rights”?

News writing is no place for “big English”. The news space is reserved for clarity and brevity of expression. Unless you are writing for a publication that targets law professionals, there is little value in driving your readers crazy with words like “interlocutory suit” and “interrogatory application”.

The current craze for legal jargon in news sometimes combines with doses of theological lingo and archaism to create a world vastly different from ours—possibly the 970 BC world of King Solomon. A world where the NPP “will pray the court to annul votes” and where a former attorney general and minister of justice has “several epistles” up his sleeve on the acquisition of aircraft for the Ghana armed forces.

Maybe some of our journalists find it too hard to paraphrase statements made in court or turn direct speech into reported speech. That’s why some news reports now consist almost entirely of quotations. But, then, some news writers go to the extent of claiming other people’s words and using them in their reports without quotation marks. It’s all a bit of a dog’s breakfast.

The growth of online news reporting in recent years calls into question the quality of journalistic standards in the digital age. Some say standards are declining worldwide. I share this view.

Control of the World Wide Web is almost outside anyone’s reach. And the instant nature of this new medium, along with the emergence of a 24-hour news cycle, means online news does not lend itself to the checks and balances often associated with the traditional media. But is that an excuse for sloppy reporting?

In the past, you had to wait for a week or even a month for Graphic, Times or GBC to report on an event that took place in Bolga, Bekwai or Bibiani. Not anymore. While a welcome change, the pitfalls are many; not least is the disturbing rise in non-factual reporting. Sadly, investigative reporting—and, if you like, truth—has become a casualty of online news reporting.

There are worrying implications for a country like Ghana where wild allegations are routinely made with little or no proof—well, sometimes, with absurd proof. The extent to which the internet has provided a fertile ground for mischief reporting is unparalleled in the history of journalism, not to speak of the overabundance of inaccuracies arising from haste. The rush to break the news first over competing media organisations is always fraught with problems, especially when it can be done with a click of the mouse.

Also worrying is the tendency to editorialise news. Sometimes I am at a loss to tell whether I am reading news or opinion online.The lines blur as opinion material is packaged as news, with little regard for the time-honoured separation of the two. Whether it is deliberate practice or ignorance on the part of some news writers, I can’t tell; but I’d like to think it’s a bit of both. Of course, there will always be partisan media outlets running commentary in news for propaganda purposes, but they give Ghanaian journalism a bad name.

I will reserve further comment on non-factual and mischief reporting for another time. For now, I want to focus on the Ghanaian journalistic practice that often strikes me as odd—the increasing use of big English and other bizarre vocabulary in news. But, first, let’s try to put things in perspective. As a second language, English is one thing many of us had to learn the hard way. A lot of Ghanaians still do. I am more comfortable with my native language, so are many of our brothers and sisters across the nation, if I may hazard a guess. The English language has been forced on us by accident of history. It is not your fault if you have limited English ability.

Many of us struggle with the English language for lack of opportunity in our early years. Maybe your parents were not the academic type—or you were not lucky enough to be born a dadaba. Maybe you went to school in Mangoase, not Accra or Tema. Well, you probably attended school in Accra, but the cyto environment didn’t help. Perhaps you dropped out of school early to help provide for your family. Possibly, you didn’t go to school at all.

As a little boy growing up in the sleepy little town of Adawso (near Koforidua) in the seventies, I admired my English-speaking cousins who visited occasionally from Accra and Kumasi. Their dads—my paternal uncles—spoke Akwapim, peppered with big English, to my father. I wished I could speak English as well as they did, but it was always a struggle when cyto schooling meant English lessons were taught in Twi.

Like many cyto kids at the time, I had the odds stacked against me in a society where the ability to speak big English was worthy of high praise. The more difficult and confusing a person’s vocabulary was, the higher the respect they earned. If they spoke gobbledegook, people would sing their praises with compliments like “otutu brofo”.

I found the same mindset in secondary school in the late seventies and early eighties. Our fascination and fondness with Primus, the colourful history and English literature teacher at Nifa Secondary School, could largely be explained by one thing—his flamboyant oratory style and ability to confuse us with long-winded sentences. The Twi master, KY, got the short end of the stick because mastery of Twi was not cool; it’s little wonder he was often the butt of one joke or another.

Fast-forward to my undergraduate years. You don’t have to stretch your imagination to figure out what might have happened in Legon’s lecture halls. Big English ruled, apart from a few lecturers who would speak to the point. And, at the social level, I can’t help but remember with great fondness my good old friend and course mate Bismark—he had a remarkable knack for flashy words that struck a magical chord with those of us who were around him.

Perhaps where big English stood out the most was in student politics. One evening in Commonwealth Hall in particular made an impression. This unassuming and often agyaba-sounding Vandal surprised everyone when he made his pitch to a packed audience at the observatory for a position on the SRC in 1986 with a string of bombastic words. It got him over the victory line. Of course, many before him had done similarly and moved on to big things—politics and other positions of influence in Ghana. Yes, it is the power of Big English!

More than a decade into the 21st century, Ghanaians can’t let go of big English. We are still trapped in the past—where the English colonial master left us. It appears we have taken little notice of calls internationally for communicators to use the vocabulary that most audiences will understand. The plain English movement has been spreading across much of the English-speaking world since I was a schoolboy, but somehow it has managed to bypass Ghana.

In Ghana, we speak and write English to impress, not to communicate. We continue to be wedded to big English, even though we expect our listeners and readers to understand us. Communication is about the making of meaning; if you are not getting your message across in the clearest possible way because of your choice of words, you are not communicating.

Plain English enables you to get your message across in a clear, direct and concise way. It enables readers to understand you easily and readily. And it means no big English; no legal, technical or bureaucratic jargon; and no lengthy, wordy or complex sentences. With plain English, you can reach as many readers in the population as possible without creating any difficulty or confusion in comprehension. That’s why in countries like Australia, the UK and the US, governments have, in some cases, mandated the use of plain English to make sure official information and documents are easy to read and understand.

Some of our politicians have been criticised over their choice of English words. Following the recent national elections, one of the countless reasons given for Nana Akufo-Addo’s apparent defeat is his poor judgment when he speaks to ordinary Ghanaians. Nana, it appears, loves big English. He may be under the impression that Big English can translate into votes. I am not suggesting it cost him votes because I don’t know, but there must be people in the NPP who will have sounded him a note of caution on his campaign trail.

In journalism, opinion and feature writers (like this one) have more flexibility to write in the style they want. They can choose to write big English because they may want to appeal to a particular audience or create a certain impression. My concern is with news—straight news—which must consist of facts, not embellishments, and be delivered with the aim to inform.

One of the first cardinal rules of news writing you learn in journalism school is to minimise “noise” in communication. Anything that interferes with your message as it travels between you and your readers is noise. In short, noise is a barrier to communication. Avoiding semantic noise—big English, technical jargon, and so on—is as important as presenting the most important information at the top of the news (inverted pyramid), as well as ensuring fairness and balance in your reporting.

At a glance, the news we read daily from Ghanaian journalists will tell you how hard some of them try to impress their readers with their mastery of the English language. In the process, they kill their message with semantic noise, sensationalism and convoluted sentences.

One story reports a former presidential staffer’s defence of President Mahama’s ministerial appointments as necessary to “oil the creaky parts of the government machinery” (isn’t that ingenious!). Another tells us that the commercial appeal of a new city to be built in Dawa by a US group “lends credence to the construction of a new international airport at Prampram” (what is that supposed to mean? That the commercial appeal makes the building of the airport true or believable? Your guess is as good as mine).

Plain English should be every news writer’s article of faith. As a news writer, it can help you avoid ambiguities and not expose your ignorance through the incorrect use of big English. The garbled phrasing that sometimes results from the use of big English can turn off readers and set a bad precedent for young Ghanaians looking to a career in journalism. If English was seen more as a necessity than a status symbol in Ghana, the appetite for big English would decrease.

The major media houses, including some of the older newspapers and journalists, tend to do a better job. It’s a strange irony, however, that the younger generation of Ghanaian journalists seems to be more obsessed with the needless use of big English than their more experienced colleagues. Many of our veteran journalists who grew up in a period when big English was fashionable appreciate the value of plain English in the 21st century. Often you don’t have to struggle to understand what they write, compared to the sheer rhetorical frippery of many others. Ghana has some great experienced journalists that the young ones can learn from.

The proliferation of online news reporting has no doubt changed the news writing landscape in Ghana. Some online news reports are very good and I’ve read a few masterpieces in their use of plain English; others are poorly written. Apart from the spelling and grammatical errors that yell at you as you trawl the internet pages—there seems to be no real copyediting or proofreading of some of these reports—big English has become an inseparable part of Ghana’s online news landscape.

Use of big English defies best practice online communication. Indeed, introducing big English into online news is like bringing dinosaurs back to life on the manicured turf of a golf course; they simply don’t go together. Research shows there is much more scanning than reading of web content. This means, as an online news writer, you don’t want your readers to be turned off by a couple of big words and long sentences as they scan your news report.

News shouldn’t make tedious reading. If, as they say, you have swallowed the dictionary, news writing is not for you. You will not need to write “inhabit the presidential abode” when “live in the presidential residence/lodge” is more tidy; nor is “the erstwhile government” necessary when “the former government” can do a better job.

Most Ghanaians get by with some English in spite of the proficiency difficulties some of us face. If news writers spared a thought for their readers, they would find that they were more effective in getting their message across and engaging with their readers.

I look forward to the day when Ghanaian news writers will replace their much-loved “reiterate” with “repeat”; “demise” with “death” or “passing”; “outfit” with “office”, “unit”, “branch” or “company”; “allude to the fact that” with “mention indirectly that”; “citizenry” with “people”; “gargantuan” with “very large; and “surmise” with “guess”—or whatever the news writers intend that overused word to mean.

By Dr Kofi Ansah Australian Capital Territory February 2013

Columnist: Ansah, Kofi

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