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Linguistic populism

By Ian Nance - posted Thursday, 8 January 2015

Habit, carelessness, laziness, ignorance, fashion; call it what you like but much of the speech of public figures, such as media presenters, officials is degraded by improper stressing of prepositions, or the unthinking pronouncing of "zero" as the letter "oh".

I notice during TV news reports about the recent Air Asia crash, initial references to Flight Eight Five 'Oh' One, then a day or so later, the correct designation, Eight Five Zero One, yet later, a reversion to the incorrect pronunciation of 'Oh'.

'O' is a letter of the alphabet, and 'zero', or 'nought', is the numerical expression. How often do we her people confuse these two?


It's also a common practice with telephone numbers, although I'm beginning to hear more advertising using the correct number pronunciation than, say, five years ago.

Those of you who are aviators would not make the mistake of not using the term "zero" when referring to altitudes, times, or airspeeds.

Oh – or would you?

The even more regular misuse of English lies in speech delivery where a habit is growing of stressing prepositions, once again often by those who have ready access to the public ear, such as media presenters.

They will often report that 'firemen were quickly ON the scene', or that 'transport was slow TO arrive', and 'that's all FOR the moment'.

Why? Why not stress the object of the phrase, not its preposition or qualifying adverb?


Another tendency is for usually immature or inexperienced radio presenters to emphasise wrongly the ending syllables of some words; I have heard of bands' being about to commence their "too-wah", presumably "tour', and at other times reference is made to the "ow-wah" where what is meant is "hour".

It's habit; thoughtless habit and forgetting that our language depends on intonation and stress to communicate many of its nuances. It's an example of ignorant populist practice spreading itself widely and loudly. Failure to understand properly a very tool with which we communicate is to overlook the vast change to meaning that inflexion or stress can bring.

For example, look at the number of ways that you could enunciate Cole Porter's memorable hit, "What Is This Thing Called Love."

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About the Author

Ian Nance's media career began in radio drama production and news. He took up TV direction of news/current affairs, thence freelance television and film producing, directing and writing. He operated a program and commercial production company, later moving into advertising and marketing.

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