“I would like to apologize to anyone I may have offended by using that split infinitive. As you know, color commentators work very hard and utter many words, and occasionally we are going to make mistakes…Please stop sending my family death threats.” — Troy Aikman, in a fake quote on a satirical news site
Broadcasting is an ultra-competitive profession. Being famous helps. So does having a pretty face. But today, if you want to succeed, you need to be really damn good.
As an agent representing sports broadcasters, I help build the careers of my clients. I am passionate about helping them maximize their talents and positively shape their media careers.
I grew up in the media. My father, Art Spander, a longtime Bay Area sportswriter, earns his living with words. Before going to law school, I worked as a sportswriter at the Sacramento Bee and the Contra Costa Times. In the media, good grammar and concise speech are how writers and broadcasters earn their living. Bad grammar and gaffes that “go viral” can be career-killers.
The English language has many quirky rules. To succeed in your chosen field, you need to have great grammar and diction.
Here are mistakes broadcasters often make and ways to avoid them:
Learn subject-verb agreement. The basic principle: Singular subjects require singular verbs; plural subjects require plural verbs. Sometimes it is not so obvious if something is singular or plural. Everyone, everybody, anybody, and anyone all require a singular verb, even though each refers to more than one person.
Often, the correct verb is easy to spot, especially when it comes immediately after the subject. Many still mess it up: “We were,” not “we was.” “They are,” not “they is.” It gets more complicated when you have a collective noun such as team, which is singular, or a subject and a verb separated by prepositional phrases.
Match verb tenses. There are three basic tenses: present, past, and future. Former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green once said, “The Bears are who we thought they were.” This is horrible grammar, but at least he got paid residuals when the footage was used in a beer commercial. Coach Green should have said: “The Bears played like we thought they would.”
Know how to use who vs. that, less vs. fewer, and further vs. farther. Use who when talking about a person (“In the playoffs, you want players who aren’t afraid to take big shots”) and that when talking about an object (“They play for an organization that is first class”) Use fewer with things you can count (“The 49ers are undefeated when they hold opponents to 14 points or fewer”) and less with things you cannot count (“The Colts were less successful without Peyton Manning”). Use farther when referring to actual distance (“He needed to go just one foot farther to get a first down”) and further for figurative distance (“The team went further in the tournament than I expected”).
Know when to use I and when to use me. “Me and Rebecca went to the game today” is incorrect. Say “I” when you’re a part of the action. Would you say, “Me went”?
Avoid misplaced modifiers. One small misplaced modifier can kill someone figuratively. It can also literally kill your career.
San Diego Padres play-by-play announcer Jerry Coleman: “There’s a deep fly ball… Winfield goes back, back… his head hits the wall … it’s rolling towards second base.”
Place modifiers where they belong—or else!
Avoid unnecessary words. Don’t waste valuable on-air time saying meaningless words. Always formulate the most concise way to make your points.
“The reason why is because…” Edited version: “The reason is…”
“Like, um.” Verbal pauses happen, but it is important to be aware of and keep them to a minimum.
“Literally.” This means you’re not being figurative. It happened exactly as described. Too often we say literally when we really mean figuratively. For example, “Brian Scalabrine is so athletic, he can literally jump out of the gym.” No, he cannot actually do that.
Never use derogatory words or phrases that offend. This is not bad grammar, per se. But it bears mentioning. Slurs are career-killers. My advice: Get them out of your vocabulary entirely; not just when you are mic’d up. In the past, homophobic, racial, ethnic, and sexist slurs too often received chuckles. Now, they cause embarrassment, suspensions and even job loss.
Pronunciation and syntax matter. On television, it is not just what you say, but how you say it. If you mumble or speak poorly, you will likely find yourself out of work — unless you are Charles Barkley, who puts his unique spin on the English language with each broadcast. “Turrible” has become one of Sir Charles’ hallmark catchphrases, but there is only one Chuck. Your best bet: Be a technically good broadcaster and avoid getting mocked by websites such as Deadspin or singled out by SI.com’s media critic Richard Deitsch.
Practice your grammar often, so when you’re in the game, it is second nature. Then you can focus on your job, which is to provide great analysis or play-by-play.Download PDF
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