I was born in the mid-70s, the period claimed by both Generation X and Generation Y. Perhaps that is what created within me that enigmatic mix of new world tastes and old world styles.
Most people who know me will say that, when it comes to grammar, I’m definitely old world. A prescriptive grammarian by inclination, I struggle daily to comprehend why and how English, the language we claim to speak, manages to be so mangled and muddled in our everyday speech and writing.
What, one might ask, has spawned today’s fresh outburst of a reflection that is not, for me at least, at all new? The genesis is a Sunday Express report by Rickie Ramdass, which deals with an ongoing murder case.
A little background grammar information is necessary for you to understand why it irked me.
Ask the average user of English to explain the terms ‘anaphora’ and ‘cataphora’ and you are likely to receive blank stares. The irony is that most speakers, largely ignorant of the two Greek-derived terms, produce examples of them in their speech and writing multiple times daily, perhaps even multiple times per hour!
Simply put, ‘anaphora’ is using a word referring to another word used previously in a sentence, text or conversation to avoid repetition of the original. So, technically speaking, pronouns tend to be anaphoric since they generally refer to an already mentioned noun. The phenomenon is certainly helpful in journalism because repeating the same noun multiple times in a sentence or paragraph can prove to be a turn-off for the reader and even more so for the listener.
Here is an example of anaphora: When David chose the hat, he put it on and he found that it fit him quite well. Both that ‘he’ (David) and ‘it’ (hat) are anaphoric. The alternative? When David chose the hat, David put the hat on and David found that the hat fit David quite well.
Cataphora, on the other hand, is using a word referring to another word that happens to follow it in the context. Confused? This example should clear it up: Before he was eight years old, David was already a national athlete. In this case, ‘he’ refers to David but we don’t discover that until we get to ‘David’ five words later in the sentence.
In writing in particular, anaphoric and cataphoric words are used to break up the monotony of the beginning of successive sentences about the particular subject, so we don’t end up with something that goes like this: “David did such and such… David then did so and so… David was this way… David wasn’t that way…”
So are you wondering what all this has to do with Ramdass and his Sunday Express Page 22 article, headlined “Double murder trial: 3rd accused provides alibi”? Well, in it, he—see what I just did there?—gave us an example of cataphora gone mad. Ramdass waxes cataphoric to the point where the reader might well have been asking himself whether he (is that Ramdass or the reader or both?) had forgotten the identity of the headlined third accused.
Journalism 101 teaches all about the five Ws of good reporting. The first is WHO?. The reader/viewer should ideally learn who are the key people in the story in the opening paragraph. To paraphrase one of my lecturers, even if your story is a bit of investigative journalism, the casual reader should not have to conduct his own enquiry/investigation to get any of the essential details of the story: besides, WHO?, that is WHAT?, WHEN?, WHERE?, WHY? and HOW?.
Should a reader/listener be required to embark on this quest, said reader/listener has been subjected to a piece of poor reportage.
Let us now take a closer look at Ramdass’ story. Paragraph One (31 words) mentions the third of three men denying any involvement in the crime, a double murder committed back in 2005. The second paragraph (26 words) introduces the cataphoric ‘he’ and names his co-accused, who had earlier in the week issued similar denials.
In Paragraph Three (26 words), we learn not just the names of the victims but the date and location of the incident as well. The fourth paragraph (20 words) identifies the judge presiding over the trial as well as its location and the size of the jury.
It is not until the fifth paragraph of this news report that the headlined third accused is named as Devon ‘Chicken’ Sookoo. Three full paragraphs in print, a total of some 75 words, separate the cataphoric ‘he’ from its root! What makes this even more galling, of course, is that the report’s headline directly refers to Sookoo as the third accused.
In a news report? Preposterous!
It goes without saying that the scuba dive I had to undertake to find out the name of the person referred to in the headline effectively killed my enthusiasm for the story. Which, my friends, is the real danger of poor journalism. The print media are now an endangered species. fighting gamely to remain relevant in an era of ever-shortening attention spans and ever-increasing competition from voice, vision and social media.
My deep 20th Century roots make it hard to dissuade me from reading but, when I encounter something like Ramdass’ story, it’s my curiosity about form and not any more about content that drives me to continue reading.
Now, this is not a personal shot at Ramdass; he is hardly the only local reporter guilty of killing people’s zeal for reading newspapers. He has many accomplices, amateur and accomplished, aiding and abetting him with the production of this fast-acting, foolproof zealicide with the potential to decimate readership!
Luckily for him, though, and for his paper, I will allow neither Ramdass nor the Sunday Express—did it again, didn’t I?—to dampen my enthusiasm for defending English by highlighting some of the crimes, anaphoric, cataphoric or catastrophic, which are perpetrated against it.