All too common sense (Episode I)

The most constant irritant that assaults my delicate sensibilities is, by many light years, the minute-to-minute over employment of the word “sense” by virtually all Public Radio hosts when they ask questions.

Next time you turn on the radio keep your ear out for it. It will astonish you just how often hosts undermine their questions by starting them with some variation of “sense.”

Some all-too-common examples of this rotten preamble:

  • Give us a sense of…
  • Is there a sense there that…
  • What’s the sense of …

It’s even more unintentionally bizarre when they couch it in one of the many variations of “Can you give us a sense of…” the correct answer to which can only be “yes” or “no”.

The host of “Here and Now” once asked a guest “Give us a sense of your mother’s sense of…”

A couple of weeks ago on “Day to Day” a host asked an interviewee if she could “see a sense” of something.

Those last two aren’t even really parseable, but I guess they sound like they have some meaning since people actually answer them. What’s the proper response to the question “do you see a sense?” And by the time you are asking for a mere sense of a sense what do you really have? Something so vague that it seems hardly worth the electricity required to broadcast it across this great country of ours.

Which brings me to the sort of 7th grade English teacher point: almost any question is weakened by asking it using the “sense” form. Using “sense” implies that you expect a nonspecific answer. I’ve never heard a host ask “Can you give a blurry, poorly thought out, partly inaccurate report about…” But that is, in essence, what they are asking. It insults both the interviewee and the listener. If the interviewee is only capable of giving a sense then maybe the show needs to find someone with better information.

The sense questions have a helpless, groping quality to them. Can’t you just hear the proverbial blind men trying to figure out the elephant asking each other what their senses of it are?

Fixing it

Just stop using it. Almost any question you can ask weakly with sense you can ask more clearly by just dropping it. “Give us a sense of the anxiety there about the housing slump?” can easily be converted to “Describe the anxiety about the housing slump there.” Plus, with just a little more work, they could choose to select from the host of more specific words available to the journeyman interrogator. A modest list: hypothesis, feeling, assessment, reaction, impression, appraisal, estimation, evaluation, judgment.

Where does this come from?

This meme infests every show on Public Radio with the possible exception of “On the Media”, but I’m not totally sure why.

I do have a few theories.

1. Perhaps it’s only a virally transmitted bad habit. Teenagers sprinkle their speech with enough “you know”s and “like”s to drive the average grandparent to drink. They clearly get it from each other. Probably some prominent NPR host started the habit and the rest just unconsciously adopted it. Maybe they need to have a “sense” jar where they must deposit a quarter every time they use the word. A penny would make more “cents” but I don’t think it’s enough punishment. (OMG, I really apologize for what I just wrote – but not enough to delete it. Yet.)

2. Maybe it’s a post-modern capitulation to the elusiveness of fact. The problem is that a basic mistrust of certainty, a very good trait in anyone, especially a journalist, when taken too far leads to susceptibility to spin, which is fatal to good reporting. If someone expresses an idea with enough confidence a reporter might just believe the tone rather than the substance, due to their own bare cupboard of trusted knowledge. That’s how we ended up at war with Iraq. The neocons seemed so all-fired confident with their “we make reality” stuff that the reporters and a lot of Americans just went with it.

3. Maybe it’s simply too much time in the studio. Recently I got to thinking about radio recording studios. They are a bit like sensory deprivation tanks – usually no windows to the outside world, dark, silent except for what comes in through the earphones. Maybe the isolation someone in such a room feels inspires them to reach out for more senses from those outside somewhere.

That last thought makes me a little sad for them.

I’d really love it if a genuine Public Radio broadcaster would give me an answer about whether or not this use of sense is automatic or volitional. Maybe they could even give me a sense of why they think they do it.

I will make note of especially clumsy or compulsively repetitious uses of sense on various shows as this blog progresses.

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7 thoughts on “All too common sense (Episode I)

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