The Grammarphobia Blog

Program notes

Q: Why do fund raisers on public radio ask for help with the “programming,” rather than the “programs”? I’ve always thought of broadcast programming as the act of scheduling or arranging programs. What are your thoughts?

A: We checked a half-dozen British and American dictionaries about the use of the word “programming” in its broadcasting sense. The results? The trend seems to be toward using “programming” broadly to mean the programs as well as the arranging of the programs.

For example, the fourth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines “programming” in the broadcast sense as the “designing, scheduling, or planning of a program, as in broadcasting.”

But the new fifth edition of American Heritage adds another sense: “Broadcast programs considered as a group: the network’s Thursday night programming.

The other American dictionary we consult the most, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), has this definition: “the planning, scheduling, or performing of a program.”

Among British references, the Collins English Dictionary has only one definition—the one you’re peeved about: “television programmes collectively.”

But another British source, the Macmillan English Dictionary, defines it more broadly as both “the planning and development of television or radio programmes” as well as “the programmes that a particular television or radio station broadcasts.”

What do we think? We feel it’s OK to use either “programming” or “programs” to refer collectively to shows on radio or TV.

The use of the word “programming” in the broadcast sense first showed up in the mid-1920s, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, the term has been used since the 1890s for the writing of program notes and the scheduling of programs for events or performances.

You may be surprised that the noun “program” has been around since the 1600s, according to written examples in the OED.

At first, it meant a notice displayed in public, then a written preface or commentary, and later a planned series of activities or events.

The OED’s first example of “program” used in the sense of a broadcast presentation is from the March 10, 1922, issue of Variety:

“Among the theatres which will provide acts exclusively for the ‘Star’s’ radio programs are the Shubert, Orpheum … Royal and 12th streets.”

English adopted the word from programma, late Latin for a proclamation or edict, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, but the ultimate source is the classical Greek word for a written public notice.

Why is the word spelled “program” in the US and “programme” in the UK? You can blame the French—or, rather Francophile Brits—for the UK spelling.

The word used to be spelled “program” on both sides of the Atlantic, according to the OED, but in Britain the “influence of French programme led to the predominance of this spelling in the 19th cent.”

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