Saturday, August 30, 2014

Lost Contain in the Sun

The first full weekend of college football offered ample opportunity to reflect on the demise of English as a beautiful language, potentially full of mystery, elegance and a rich vocabulary.

Within minutes of turning on the set, I caught the first misuse of "contain," which is a verb everywhere but in the confused grammar that fills the networks on autumn weekends. To most ex-jocks, contain is a noun, usually applied to some defender's allowing a back to slip by him or a receiver to get behind him, as in: "He lost contain." That is one of the ugliest-sounding sentences in the language. And, since grammar is nothing more than a description of the way words are used, it will likely become standardized usage because of the reach of TV. English lovers will have lost another round.

The crime of contain as a noun lies in the fact that it's not needed _ it duplicates containment. I have to believe that the "ment" was dropped for no other reason than that it shortened each sportscaster's sentence by a syllable. Having once been forced to do color commentary for a high school game, I acknowledge that each syllable must be weighed in terms of air time. But, if that's truly the case on the national level, why not use "kept charge" or "lost sway?" Or how about "control" or "oversight," each with only two syllables? Why twist a perfectly good verb into a monstrous noun?

It's true that other verbs serve well as nouns _ "fire," "treat," "maintain" and "voice" have seen dual application for so long no one knows whether they started as action words (verbs) or substantives (nouns) But it's equally true that English is a phonetic language, which is why everyone uses the article "an" instead of "a" ahead of the word "ape." And, because our language has always been shaped by the way words sound together, English speakers chose containment when they referred to keeping someone or something in check. Until now.

I can't blame the other glaring sign of illiteracy on sportscasts, although it shows up in them with great frequency. It also occurs in telecasts of every stripe, and on the highest level. I caught part of a Fox Business show Saturday on which one of the commentators said, "The corporations, who ... " I didn't get the rest of the sentence, because I wanted to scream, "No, lady, corporations are not people. Even Michael Moore (a one-man property conglomerate, according to his divorce papers) could tell you that."

For centuries "who" referred to people, and "which" referred to groups or things. But "which" seems to have been dropped from most vocabularies. Any day now, I expect to hear a newscast about an automobile accident which begins, "The car rammed a tree, who stood beside the road."


1 comment:

  1. In fairness, I have to acknowledge that I heard Al Michaels, the gold standard among sportscasters _ in my eyes, at least, say, "containment was lost" on Sept. 14 during Chicago's 28-20 win over San Francisco on NBC's Sunday Night Football. Michaels, a native of Brooklyn, is a graduate of the noted journalism program at Arizona State University.