Readers of this column have manifested a continuing interest in the English language. I write about usage not as a authority but as one who reports on the contents of the mail that reaches his desk.
Discussion has heretofore centered on the written language. However, this might be a good day to deal with oral usage. This is the season in which the airwaves are filled with accounts of baseball, football, basketball and hockey games.
Sports programs used to attract a preponderantly male audience, but this is no longer true.The sports widow is rapidly becoming extinct. Women have become knowledgeable fans, and they tend to judge broadcasters by higher standards.
It should be noted at the outset that there are at least three bases for judgment. One can judge an extemporaneous speaker against absolute standards of good usage. Most realistic standards permit the shortcuts that are widely prevalent in oral communication. Or one can be even more lenient and accept slang, jargon and substandard speech that is appropriate to the occasion and the speaker.
For example, President Carter's unrehearsed statements can withstand close scrutiny. Even his ad-lib responses at a press conference are grammatically sound and reflect his above-average ability to communicate. You might not agree with what he says, but he says it well.
Most of us benefit from a more charitable basis for judgement. We say, "Joe here yet?" when we mean "Has Joe arrived yet?" And we slur syllables to such an extent that foreigners find it difficult to understand us. "Jeet jet?" turns out to mean. "Have you been out to lunch yet?" However, in informal conversation, this "oral shorthand" is widely accepted.
Sports broadcasters deserve the third basis for judgment: Is the slang, jargon and substandard speech they use appropriate for the occasion and the speaker?"
The verdict that reaches my desk is often, "no!"
When Dizzy Dean said that a runner "slud" into third base, a few purists objected, but most listeners accepted Diz for what he was -- a man who made no pretense of using the language properly. When Sparky Anderson tells Vin Scully, "You can't let a batter like this have nothin' good to hit in this situation," baseball fans understand that first base is open and one must not give a dangerous hitter a fat pitch. The listener has not tuned in for a lesson in double negatives. He wants to hear grand strategy analyzed by a former player who has standing as an expert.
Howard Cosell, on the other hand, represents himself to be a master of good usage and, even worse, a man who uses elegant English. Judged on that basis, he is a turkey. For good measure, he is pompous and too often fallible.
When Keith Jackson mentioned Dave Parker's disappointing hitting, Cosell agreed. Parker thereupon lined a solid hit into the outfield, and Cosell exclaimed, "What did I tell you?" Then he referred to the death of Chuck Tanner's wife although it was Tanner's mother who died.
It was said of umpire Bill Klem that he was "seldom wrong and never in doubt. "Cosell is never wrong, period If you don't believe me, ask him.
What's more, Cosell says things like "He only has one hit" when he means "He has only one hit." He says, "Outside of Jones, nobody has gotten a hit," leaving the listener to wonder how many players have gotten hits inside Jones.
On Sunday he said, "Y'know, knowing Kiko as I do, with that pinched nerve in his back, he goes to the doctor for treatment every month." Parse that one for us, Howard.
Even the listener who is willing to be charitable in juding anaylsis from former players becomes annoyed to find that almost every expert comment is preceded by a useless introductory phrase. The most frequently heard are, "I'll tell you," I'll tell you something" and "Y'know something?"
TV adds to viewer annoyance by showing far too many advertisements for upcoming programs. By the time we see the same Mork & Mindy plug for the twentieth time, we're ready to climb the walls. One must be a devoted sports fan to endure televised games.
When I watch a game on TV, my wife sometimes asks, "Who's playing?" Many years ago, I could reply, "The Bullets and the Redskins," and that would satisfy her. But that doesn't work any more. Now she knows that the Bullets play basketball, the Redskins play football, and the game on my screen is baseball.
With interest in sports rising as women join the audience, there may be less inclination to judge the broadcasters charitably. As my roommate put it during this World Series, "Willie Stargell speaks better English than Howard Cosell does -- and makes a better impression because he's modest, not egotistical." Give that lady a gold star for her cap, Willie.