Thursday, June 25, 2009

Weller, 88, Dies in Tragic Walker Collision

Grammar Nazi here. Today, we'll discuss the phenomenon of journospeak, or phrases that you rarely hear outside of a newspaper article. An amusing error in today's Deseret News brings journospeak to mind:

Longtime Utah bookseller Samuel Weller passed away Wednesday due to incidents of old age. He was 88.
My oh my. What incidents of old age might have caused the venerable Mr. Weller to pass on? A broken hip? A tragic walker accident? Pterodactyl attack? I'm sure Carl Fredericksen could illuminate us on the subject.

The problem here, of course, is the phrase "incident of old age," which you hear or read a lot in newspapers, but rarely hear in spoken conversation. The phrase is grammatically correct, relying on the second definition of "incident" from the trusty American Heritage Dictionary, which states incident means "related to or dependent on another thing." So Mr. Weller's death, as the phrase implies, came because of his age, not because of some traumatic octogenarian accident, which the plural "incidents'" in the plug implies.

Therein lies the journospeak and phonetic trap: The phrase is "incident of old age," or as normal people say, "because he was old." Change incident to incidents and you bring about the spectre not of a peacefull passing due to advanced age, which one expects, but of an accident involving Pepsodent or an item from The Scooter Store.

Yes, the Grammar Nazi recognizes he is being ageist in his descriptions of possible age-related incidents. Mr. Weller could just as well have died bungee jumping or skydiving, but that's not the point. The point is with the plural incidents, the phrase leaves the realm of journospeak and enters the realm of error.
And let syou think the Grammar Nazi too huffy, I had to edit this post to fix my spelling of "octogenarian." I'm so humble, so humble humble huuummmmblllleeee!