Even by the already fallen standards of contemporary Ghanaian journalism, what we are witnessing these days in print, on air and in cyberspace is frightening. Very frightening.
It is frightening because unlike any other professionals, journalists have considerable influence on the way we think and behave, the way we read and write, and even the way we talk. What ails them thus ails us too. In fact, the quality of journalism in any country is a fairly good indicator of the state of development in that country.
When the headmistress of a secondary school once complained that the English spoken on a local radio station was so bad that it was affecting the teaching of the language in her school, she put her finger on what was in fact a nation-wide problem, the print and cyber media included.
The irony, though, is that the reverse is also true: The quality of journalism (and writing in general) is partly a reflection of the poor state of education in the country, too. It’s one aspect of a larger national development problem. (Which explains why we have a name like “Entrepreneurial Development Agency”, for instance, when the correct form should be “Entrepreneurship Development Agency”, but that’s a matter for another time).
The list of bloopers and foibles that follows is not exhaustive, nor is it meant to lay out all that is wrong with Ghanaian journalism today. It is only a scattershot of some of the most egregious transgressions in the profession as it continues its steady and reckless descent into the depths of mediocrity. It is meant not to ridicule but to prompt some soul-searching within a group that spends so much time dissecting the problems of others but very little, if any, on its own.
It’s a wake-up call of sorts.
The list, below, follows in no particular order of importance:
35. “Severally”. Like a deadly virus, the word “severally” has taken over our airwaves in the past two years with uncommon ferocity. Even university professors misuse it in radio interviews. Appearances notwithstanding, it does NOT mean “several times” or “repeatedly”. It means “separately” and is most commonly used in tort claims. Two persons may be held jointly and severally liable for a breach of contract, for example. According to one dictionary, you can even wash and dry your laundry severally – whites first, followed by coloured. So, there… “severally” means separately, not several times.
34. “Scribe” as General Secretary. The word “scribe” means a writer, not a General Secretary. It is also, incidentally, an informal term for a journalist. It just so happened that in the late 1990s, the General Secretary of the NDC, Dr. Josiah Aryeh, also worked as a columnist for the Daily Graphic, and was once described, appropriately, as a scribe. Suddenly, our journalists were referring to every General Secretary as a scribe. Recently, a newspaper even described the General Secretary of a medical association as a scribe! Ridiculous.
33. “Whooping amount”: Whooping is either the sound of human excitement or the cry of a bird. It has nothing to do with quantities. The correct word is “whopping”.
32. “Gutted by fire”: – A building gutted by fire has only its inside (guts) burnt but is otherwise intact. What we often see in the papers and on TV are buildings that have in fact been razed by fire, although the headlines scream “gutted”. In the case of the recent market fires, it appears they were either partially or extensively destroyed but not gutted as such.
31. “God-sent” or God-send?: The first one sounds correct, but the dictionary says otherwise. The correct form is “godsend” (one word, small “g”, and no hyphen – more on hyphens later).
30. Waist vs. waste. The first one is what you use to dance Azonto, and the second one means garbage or “bollah” (which is only one of many meanings; when in doubt, consult a dictionary. Don’t turn yourself into a laughing stock by telling someone not to “waist” your time).
29. Banter vs. confrontation. When Woyome did not appear in Parliament as expected last year, one radio station proclaimed on its website that the “dramatic banter” between the embattled businessman and the legislators did not materialise. Perhaps because of its closeness in sound to “batter” and “encounter”, our journalists have mistaken the word “banter” for confrontation. In fact, it means teasing (typically between acquaintances). If I tell you, “Challey, these your shoes diɛ, dem dey be kɛkɛ”, I am indulging in banter, not confrontation, with you.
28. Bravado vs. bravery. When the Black Satellites came from near-elimination to place third in the recent FIFA U-20 World Cup, one newspaper headline blared, “Sheer Bravado!” Of course what they meant was, “Sheer Bravery!” Bravado means empty boast or showing off, without any achievement to support it. The Akan call it “ntoatoa” or “ayesɛm.” That’s definitely NOT what the brave Satellites displayed in Turkey.
27. It’s vs. its. The first is a contraction of “it” and “is,” and the second is a possessive pronoun. It seems obvious and basic enough, but news stories are littered with the haphazard intermingling of the two.
26. “Am” vs. “I’m”. The correct form should be, “I am” or the contracted “I’m”, but never just “am”. The lazy (and, shall I add, sometimes annoying) sentence fragments of Twitter and Facebook must not be allowed to undermine the rules of formal writing. Many prospective employers reject job applications that are peppered with such Twitter gibberish. Young job applicants should take note.
25. Inquisition vs. inquiry/enquiry: One dictionary describes inquisition as, “A severe interrogation (often violating the rights or privacy of individuals)”. An investigation into market fires, therefore, cannot be an “inquisition”, as reported by some media houses; it’s an enquiry (British) or inquiry (American). While these and other words (such as “inquest”) may have common roots, they have different branch meanings.
24. Shared vs. shed: A recent headline said a minister “shared crocodile tears”, instead of “shed crocodile tears”. The writer might only have heard the word on radio or TV and never seen it in print. It speaks volumes of the state of reading culture in the country.
23. Hyphens vs. dashes. Hyphens connect words, such as Secondi-Takoradi, without any spaces between the joined words. A dash, by contrast, is a pause and has spaces before and after it – such as appears in this sentence. Hence, Atta-Mills, and not Atta – Mills. Or Agyemang-Rawlings, not Agyemang – Rawlings. And 2012-2013, not 2012 – 2013, etc.
22. Bid vs. bide. “Bid your time” has become quite common, although the correct form is “bide your time”. You bid for something (at an auction, say) but not time. Of course, the present continuous tense is “biding,” not ‘”bidding,” one’s time.
21. Border vs. bother. The confusion between the two is largely because of the way we pronounce “bother”, with a “d”, instead of a “th” sound. Fair enough, but for those who make a living by the written word, that’s no excuse. They should know better. We learn from them.
20. “Borders on” vs. “about”. During the recent Supreme Court hearings, one journalist reported that “counsel asked the witness questions bordering on pink sheets”. Thankfully, he didn’t say “bothers on”, but that was still wrong. Despite its popular misuse, “borders on” does not mean “about” or “relating to”. It means “close to”. Hence, questions that border on economics, for instance, are not necessarily about economics but they could be; they suggest so. Behaviour that borders on the criminal is not necessarily criminal; it could be but it’s not. In all likelihood, therefore, the lawyer at the Supreme Court simply asked the witness questions about pink sheets and not questions bordering on them. The chronic misuse of this phrase borders on the pathological!
19. Thinking cup? The correct form of course is “thinking cap” (as in the hat we wear). Hint for spotting the difference: Both cap and hat have an “a” in them. Cup is what we drink from, shaped like a “u”.
18. “Electrocuted to death”. My response to this expression the first time I heard it was, “Ebei, how could a dead person be killed again?” “Electrocuted” means killed by electric shock; “electrocuted to death”, therefore, is a tautology.
17. “Survivor of a fatal accident” – Really? It always turns out that nobody died in the accident after all. Unless someone died, an accident cannot be described as fatal.
16. His-her mix-ups. “The man told her wife”. The first time I saw this, I dismissed it as a one-off error. Sadly, I have seen it many times since in various forms. The possessive pronoun should obviously be “his”, referring to the husband, not the wife.
15. “Worth his sort”?. The correct expression is, “worth his salt”. Enough said.
14. “Whiles”. Appearances notwithstanding, “whiles” is a verb and has nothing to do with “whilst” or “while”, which are conjunctions. “Whilst” is common in the UK, while “while” is favoured by the Americans, known for their parsimony in spelling (color, favor, flavor, judgment, acknowledgment, etc.). It is therefore wrong to say, for instance, that “whiles Kofi was in the room, Jojo arrived”. The correct word should either be “while” or “whilst”, but not “whiles”.
13. Foul vs. afoul. We run afoul, not foul, of the law.
12. “Opined,” etc. Common these days, like “averred”, “quipped”, or “indicated”, “opined” is not just a substitute for “said”. To opine is to express an opinion without fear, and to quip is to make a light-hearted comment, which is not the same as to “aver”, to say something forcefully, even swear. The rule of thumb (not “thump”, as we sometimes see in print) is to simply use the generic “said” if the writer is unsure of the context in which a statement was made.
11. Misuse of the semicolon (;). Here is a recent example: “When there is no meat eater; the butcher doesn’t have a job”…. A comma rather than a semi-colon would have been appropriate. The problem is so widespread and takes so many forms, especially in headlines, that the only solution is for journalists to educate themselves thoroughly about this small but tricky punctuation. The internet is a good place to start. Until then, the comma often suffices.
10. “From the word go”. Though popular, the correct expression is “from the get go.” It comes from horse racing where jockeys urge their horses at the beginning of a race to “get going”, later shortened to “get go”.
9. Etc. or ekc.? “Etc.” is an abbreviation of the Latin “et cetera” (“and so forth”). It has no “k” in it, yet we keep hearing “ek cetera, ek cetera”. Similarly, the last letter in the alphabet is “zed”, not “zet”. Of course, we all learned “zet” in primary school. But then times change, and so should we.
8. “Consequences” pronounced as “kwesikwensis”. It’s not clear why even “senior journalists” commit this faux pas, but it’s embarrassing. English may not be native to Ghana, but we’ve adopted it as the medium of instruction in our schools and the official language of the nation. We are entitled to our own accents but not our own rules.
7. Pronunciation. The “o” before the “u” in the verb “pronounce” drops out in the noun form, to give us “pronunciation” and not “pronOunciation” as we often hear on air.
6. Spur vs. spare. Like “urge” and “edge”, “flush” and “flash”, “run” and “ran”, “crash” and “crush”, “fun” and “fan”, the confusion between “spur” and “spare” is simply the result of laziness and sloppy writing. Some writers appear to have only heard the words on radio and never seen them in writing, hence they don’t know the difference. Anybody can get away with such an excuse but not a journalist, who lives by the written word.
5. Who interviews whom? The following form is quite common in news stories, although it is wrong: “In an interview with Kojo Mensah, he said so-and-so”. Surely, Mr Mensah could not have interviewed himself, could he? This is a case of a misplaced modifier. The correct form should be, “In an interview with [the media house], Kojo Mensah said so-and-so].”
4. “It may be recalled that….” Recalled by whom? Just go ahead and say what you want to say – and save space and time. Word economy is the hallmark of good journalism.
3. “Hot bout of sex”. Ever since a misguided journalist used this term to describe rape, it has become standard in the Ghanaian media, a kind of monkey-see, monkey-do mindlessness. Fact is, it is a crude and insensitive way of describing a very traumatic experience for rape victims. There’s a reason some people prefer the term “sexual violence” – to capture the horror of it all. Similarly, there’s nothing “sexy” about a quack doctor who takes sexual advantage of his patients. The appropriate label should be “sexual predator”, “pervert”, or “low life” but certainly not “sexy”, which has a positive connotation.
2. Habitual misspelling of people’s names. Any media house worth its salt must have a compendium of people they cover frequently and make sure their names are spelt properly. Akoto-Osei is not the same as Osei-Akoto, nor is Acheampong the same as Akyeampong. Adjepong and Agyepong may sound alike but they are definitely not the same. The same goes for Lartey and Laate, or Aryeetey and Ayittey. And, to be sure, Nii Noi is not the same as Nii Moi! Few things are as irritating as someone misspelling your name.
1. Disregard for the parenthetical. This is very annoying because all it takes to fix it is a simple comma at the proper place. In the following example, “Ms Araba Banson” is a parenthetical phrase that must open and close with a comma, otherwise the sentence is ungrammatical. “The Minister of Sports and Recreation, Ms Araba Banson, left Accra for Kampala last night.” The incorrect but more common version would be, “The Minister of Sports and Recreation, Ms Araba Banson left Accra for Kampala last night.” Without the second comma, we have a run-on sentence, an aberration.
Obviously, a whole book can be written about the challenges of Ghanaian journalism today. And like any structural problem, it will take time to fix, but we must start somewhere. The following modest proposals should help any such effort.
1. Even with the best educational system, formal training alone is never enough to make one a good journalist. A curious mind, the desire to improve oneself (as in any profession) is essential. This, among other things, requires a voracious appetite for reading. While community and school libraries have all but disappeared over the years, the Internet offers a great substitute. The websites of some of the world’s leading newspapers provide an opportunity for the journalist who is serious about self-improvement.
2. The GJA should set up an online observatory to track developments in the profession and share them with its members. This may be supplemented with the occasional clinic on journalistic best practices – for reporters and editors alike. It may even compile a Dictionary of Problem Words peculiar to Ghana.
3. At least once a week, journalists should turn the spotlight on themselves, to see where they go wrong and how they can do better.
4. Before the advent of ICT, every journalist worth the name had at least a dictionary on their desk to guide their writing (some even carried dictionaries in their pockets!). Today, ICT has replaced that with even better options. Microsoft Office, for instance, has features for checking spelling, even grammar. Many of the bloopers we see in print can be avoided if such ICT tools were used. There are also free downloadable dictionaries-cum-thesauruses to guide the serious writer. I use Wordweb, which I find very useful. A simple Ctrl-Alt-W will put a range of choices at your fingertips. News readers can also benefit from its audio feature, which teaches pronunciation. They would learn, for instance, that the “l” in words like should, could, would, half, halve, and psalm are all silent, which makes life a lot easier, for sure.
Last but not least in importance (mark this expression) is the recent practice by some media houses to splash their names across photographs taken by their reporters. If the objective is to prevent others from using them, then it’s selfish and contrary to the spirit of the Internet, which is sharing. It is ironic that the same media houses freely use the undefaced photographs of others when it suits them, oblivious of their own selfishness. Photography is a form of art and is best enjoyed unimpeded. Copyrights can be claimed unobtrusively in the corner of a photograph without turning it into a graffiti.
As a former newspaper editor, I wish to see nothing but the best for the profession.