Thursday, September 8, 2011

Grammatical shysterism

If you are striving to write clearly, you should carefully avoid grammatical shysterism, the deceptive use of grammar. Here’s a classic example of grammatical shysterism:

WBBM-TV, a CBS affiliate, interviewed a four-year-old boy on camera and then edited the interview to distort the meaning of his words. When other journalists exposed this offense, WBBM-TV issued the following statement:

“We accept responsibility for the mistakes that were made, both in the reporting and editing of the story. The video of the child should not have aired. As soon as news management identified the problem, they took immediate steps to ensure that the video would not air in subsequent newscasts. In addition, we have followed up with our employees to make sure that we all have learned from the mistakes that were made.”


When referring to the making, editing and broadcasting of the offensive video, the statement uses either passive voice:

mistakes that were made

or reflexive voice:

The video… should not have aired

When referring to what the station did after it got caught broadcasting the offensive video, the statement uses active voice every time:

We accept

news management identified

they took

we have followed up

we all have learned

The grammar suggests that a mischievous video aired itself on WBBM-TV but diligent managers at WBBM-TV immediately took steps to prevent that sneaky little video from airing itself again.

The Takeaway: Don’t slip into the habit of using grammatical shysterism; it will make you sound like a shyster.

Thanks to Janice L. Brown, a colleague and clear writer, for coining the term grammatical shysterism.

See disclaimer.

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