Sensational

NPR interviewers are actually mutating the English language into a new dialect I call “Commentatorese”.

Liane Hansen asked the following question today of Joe Sharkey:

Do you have a sense of how many flights were delayed?

Sharkey’s response was that about 10,000 fights were delayed.  But that isn’t at all what Liane asked, at least not in English.  She posed the question in Commentatorese.

Either Sharkey speaks this dialect, or the full, unedited interview must have sounded more like this:

LH: Do you have a sense of how many flights were delayed?

JS: Yes, I think so.

(silence)

LH: Okay, what is your sense?

JS: Uhmm, I guess it’s a numerical sense.  Maybe like the numerical equivalent of literacy?  I’m not sure what you –

LH: Fine. What’s your numerical sense of how many flights were delayed?

JS: Well, I guess it’s what you’d call an “estimate” or maybe “estimation.”

LH: And what is the sense of your estimation?

JS: A numerical one.

(silence)

LH: Do you have a sense of the number?

JS: Yes.

(silence)

LJ: Is it a big one?

JS: The sense?

LH: (thinks) Uhmm, I guess I mean the number.

JS: Yes, I guess it’s a pretty big one, at least in the context of flight delays.  In the context of, let’s say, cosmology, it’s actually really, really small.

(silence)

LH: What is the size of it?

JS: A lot of zeroes.

LH: Can you give us a sense of how many zeroes?

JS: Yes.

(audible sighs from both)

LH: What is the sense of how many zeroes?

JS: Hmm.  Are you asking about the way we scale a number by powers of ten so you can tell how big it is?  Is this a show about math?  I thought we were talking about weather-related travel delays.

LH: We are.  You don’t get what I’m asking.

JS: What are you asking?

(silence)

JS: Do you want my estimate of how many flights were delayed?

LH: Yes, I guess that’s it.

JS: Then why don’t you just ask me that?

LH: Okay, do you have a sense of how many flights were delayed?

JS: Yes, I do have a sense, but that’s not what I said.  Ask me for an estimate of how many flights were delayed.  Or better yet just ask me how many flights were delayed like my wife did when I told her I’d figured out how many flights were delayed.

LH: Uhmm.  Do you have a sense –

JS: STOP!  Just repeat after me: “How”

LH: Is your sense –

JS: I’m going to walk out of this studio right now if you don’t repeat after me. “How”

LH: How

JS: “Many”

LH: Many

JS: “Flights were delayed”

LH: Flights were delayed?

JS: Much better.  About 10,000 flights were delayed.

(silence)

LH: And do you have a sense that –

Sharkey throws off his headphones and exits studio.

“Let be be the finale of seem”

Wallace Stevens (who was a journalist for a short time)

While we aren’t quite to the end of the week, I think we have a clear “best in show” sense abuser today. In a “two way” reporting on the breach in the wall between Gaza and Egypt, Day To Day correspondent Peter Kenyon declared confidently that “there does seem to be some kind of a growing sense” of something in Israel.

Let’s break down just how weak a construction that is:

  • “There does seem”. He’s introduced “seem”, so we know the information he’s about to try to communicate is unreliable. It may be a misapprehension on someone’s (presumably Kenyon’s) part. Basically no one is committing to anything, and I think that’s a good way to protect from any sort of libel suit. Reporters can be so vulnerable to litigation these days.
  • “some kind”. So whatever is seeming to be is now not only unreliable it also has an unknown quality. That’s exciting because the listener is required to imagine all the different kinds of whatever it seems to be, making the normally passive experience of listening to the radio much more interactive and 21st century.
  • “growing” Whatever is seeming to be some kind of something is definitely getting larger or taller, so that’s good. Or not. This is sounding more and more like a late night UFO report from a drunk illiterate Texan. But, finally, what is it that we’re talking about…

Wait fot it… Wait for it…

  • a “sense” of something!

So what are we left with after that deconstruction?

A sense of something that’s growing and has a mysterious unknown quality and only seems to exist – it may just be a figment of Peter’s imagination like the milk-detecting fridge is a figment of Laura Sydell’s.

Now that’s powerful reporting! Or some kind of growing sense of powerful reporting at least…

There’s a kind of sense

…all over the world, tonight! (sing it)

A funny sub-genre of sense getting is the adjectival modification of the question. You’ll hear public radio hosts straining to get various kinds of senses. Sometimes they want a “strong sense” or an “overwhelming sense,” but my favorite is the commonly heard “general sense,” such as the one Renee Montagne attempted to elicit from an interview subject on Morning Edition today.

Did she want something even more vague than a regular old sense? Really? I guess the subject should have made sound effects with their mouth instead of answering in language.

Sometimes I really miss Bob Edwards.

Sense of well saying

The second big tic indulged in by too many Public Radio hosts is the word “well” or the phrase “well and…” This throw-away word is often employed to “segue” (transition) from one topic to another during an interview or discussion. Such an almost subverbal conversational signal comes in handy during the kind of fast moving discussion live radio demands, and I have no problem with its appropriate use. But in some cases the word has become almost a medium of its own in which the conversation takes place. Some hosts use this word to begin virtually every declarative statement they make on air. Curiously this is often combined with “getting a sense”. Where you find one you usually find the other.

Robin Young, dulcet-voiced host of WBUR’s nationally syndicated “Here and Now,” is one of the champion well and sense-sayers, but she is dwarfed by the true Michael Jordan of the technique, New Hampshire Public Radio’s Laura Knoy. Ms. Knoy begins virtually every episode of her often terrific 5 day a week show “The Exchange” by trying to get a sense from each of her subjects. I once heard her carefully ask “just give us a sense” four times in a row to her four guests, strongly implying she actually chooses to do this. (Robin Young owned up to the practice via email and indicated she considered it a bad habit.) Laura also manages to leave Robin in the dust well-wise. Just today she began her interview with a combination of the two, “Well and Jamie I’ll start with you. Give us a sense of…”, for triple bonus points.

Airbag deployed!

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 all these sense questions are 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.

Fun Update: I asked Tanzina Vega, host of The Takeaway and a frequent sense-requester, whether this style of query was intentional or just a habit and her response was to retweet my question with the addition of an upside-down face emoji. So that happened.