Is the BBC getting caught in the transatlantic drift?
is style editor, BBC newsroom in London
The BBC may be an international broadcaster - and indeed communicates in many languages through the World Service - but its use of English is among the things most likely to generate audience discontent.
Some see the BBC as one of the last bastions in the fight to preserve correct grammar and usage, and in many cases listeners, viewers and readers see the use of Americanisms as a clear sign that the battlements are crumbling.
Of course what constitutes an Americanism is another matter; we won't yet be talking about someone “ripping his pants on the fender while putting his case in the trunk of his automobile”.
But we have to tread a path between preserving British English usage and acknowledging terminology that has acquired a wider usage and understanding.
It is a topic often discussed and one that is included in our guidance for journalists, where we say of Americanisms: “Take care not to copy and paste them from agency copy. We say: meet (not 'meet with'), consult (not 'consult with'), talk to (not 'talk with'), protest against a decision (not 'protest a decision'), appeal against a verdict (not 'appeal a verdict'). We say car rather than 'automobile', town centre rather than 'downtown', shopping centre rather than 'shopping mall', dustbin rather than 'trash can', lorry driver rather than 'trucker', producer rather than 'showrunner', mortuary rather than 'morgue', power cut rather than 'outage'.”
But that’s not to say that all terms originating in the US should be shunned. ‘Intern’ is a word that has quickly become assimilated into UK usage, and we have to judge whether the home-grown synonyms do the same job as efficiently. One wonders if the same discussions took place when ‘disc jockey’ began to percolate across the Atlantic after World War II.
The goal always has to be clarity and sometimes there are alternatives that might not be instantly recognised by a domestic audience: gas for petrol, semester for term, muffler for exhaust.
But should we reject options where there is no ambiguity? One editor tells me he wants to embrace all aspects of English and sees no reason why he should not alternate aeroplane and airplane; no-one would be in doubt about what he meant.
In an interview I gave recently for Radio 4's Feedback on 16 August, I was asked whether I saw anything wrong with using American terminology when the meaning remained clear. The simple answer would be that clarity should be a cornerstone of our output.
But, having read hundreds of thousands of emails from our licence fee payers over the years, I recognise that they do care about these issues, and expect us to uphold all aspects of UK language and usage. One man emailed me after Feedback to say: “It is not good enough to trot out the old excuse that language evolves. The media, particularly broadcast media, must appreciate that they have a massive and unnatural influence on changing the words we use. When listeners/viewers hear American expressions a few times, they begin to think that these are the right expressions to use.”
So we aim to tread a path of compromise, ensuring clarity but also acknowledging the views of our paymasters. On spelling, we should use British English in all cases - although we do render proper nouns in the original: World Trade Center; US Department of Defense.
When it comes to words and phrases, we take a view on whether they are acceptable. In a recent article readers were invited to share their own pet hates and their submissions make interesting reading.
I’m happy to admit being quite liberal when it comes to ‘train station’. It’s a term that does its job perfectly, and I can’t see why it should not stand alongside ‘railway station’, which many of our correspondents insist is the British version.
As always, I must stress that much of our guidance is aimed at our most permanent outlet, the News website; the odd slip in a live TV or radio broadcast can be forgiven if not condoned.
We also recognise that we employ Americans in our US bureaux, and it is our responsibility to coach them in communicating in a different version of their own language.
But to return to my original point, language changes and these days it can change very quickly; words and phrases can soon gain a currency that renders them a useful tool.
I was always told that the term ‘forensic expert’ was a no-no. ‘Forensic’ actually means related to a court of law, so an expert could be a judge as much as a white-coated scientist. But modern usage - much of it no doubt derived from US films and TV series - has led to a redefining of the term. The Oxford English Dictionary now recognises that forensic can mean “relating to… the application of scientific methods and techniques to the investigation of crime”.
History also has a part to play. We sometimes receive complaints about the use of ‘gotten’, yet it is a word that originated in the UK (we still have ill-gotten and begotten). While some see it as employing an Americanism, is it not a case of reclaiming our own language?
So we try to hold what is a shifting line. Sometimes a phrase or usage will be allowed to breach the barricades.
But British English is the default position and those who stray will be told in no uncertain terms - if not by the audience, then by me and other editors who understand the privileged place the BBC has as a guardian of our language.