Sunday’s “Week in Review” section of the NY Times had an article by Geoffrey Nunberg discussing a phenomenon I have noticed but not seen mentioned before, the proliferation of participles taking the place of verbs in news broadcasting.
…The all-news networks have begun to recite their leads to a new participial rhythm: “In North Dakota, high winds making life difficult; the gusts reaching 60 m.p.h.” . . . “A Big Apple accident, two taxicabs plowing into crowds of shoppers” — call the new style ing-lish. Fox News Channel and CNN have adopted it wholesale, and it’s increasingly audible on network news programs as well.
The odd thing is that not even the newscasters seem to have a clear idea of what they’re doing, or why. A “Newshour With Jim Lehrer” feature described the style as one of “dropping most verbs, putting everything in the present tense.”
But cable news reporters don’t actually drop any verbs except “to be,” and that only in sentences like “President Bush in Moscow.” And those participles like “plowing” aren’t in the present tense — they don’t have any tense at all.
What ing-lish really leaves out is all tenses, past, present or future, and with them any helping verbs they happen to fall on — not just be, but have and will. Newscasters used to say “The Navy has used the island for sixty years but will cease its tests soon.” On CNN or Fox, that comes out as “The Navy using the island for sixty years but ceasing its tests soon.”
What’s the point of this? The NewsHour calls it “an abbreviated language unique to time-pressed television correspondents,” and points to the need to shoehorn as many stories as possible into a brief space. But the new syntax doesn’t actually save any time — sometimes, in fact, it makes sentences longer. “Bush met with Putin” is one syllable shorter than “Bush meeting with Putin.”
Strangely, broadcasters don’t seem to realize how bizarre the new style sounds. Fox newscaster Shepherd Smith calls it “people speak” and explains, “It’s about how would I tell this story if I were telling it to a friend on a street corner.” But that must be a pretty exotic intersection, if Mr. Smith’s buddies are saying things like “My car in the shop. The brakes needing relining.”