Q: What do you think of the recent Doonesbury strip on the use of present participles in TV talk? I’ve been foaming at the mouth over this for years.
A: We’re not foaming at the mouth, but too much of any trendy usage can be annoying.
The linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, who commented on this usage more than a dozen years before the cartoonist Garry Trudeau, has coined a term for the use of “-ing” participles in broadcasting: “ing-lish.”
In a Dec. 8, 2002, article in the New York Times, Nunberg notes that “the all-news networks have begun to recite their leads to a new participial rhythm.”
“Fox News Channel and CNN have adopted it wholesale, and it is increasingly audible on network news programs as well,” he says.
A sentence like “The Navy has used the island for 60 years but will cease its tests soon,” Nunberg explains, comes out in ing-lish as “The Navy using the island for 60 years but ceasing its tests soon.”
“What ing-lish really leaves out is all tenses, past, present or future, and with them any helping verbs they happen to fall on—not just be, but have and will,” he says.
Interestingly, Nunberg adds, this usage “doesn’t actually save any time—sometimes, in fact, it makes sentences longer. ‘Bush met with Putin’ is one syllable shorter than ‘Bush meeting with Putin.’ ”
If it doesn’t save time, why do broadcast journalists use ing-lish?
The linguist Asya Pereltsvaig suggests that it may be because the present progressive tense (“I am dancing”) denotes “something that happens at this very moment” while the simple present (“I dance”) refers to “a broader range of temporal points.”
In a Sept. 21, 2015, post on Languages of the World, she explains that the present tense (“I dance”) can refer to dancing “often/every day/from time to time” and so on.
The linguist Mark Liberman, in a Sept. 20, 2015, comment on the Language Log about the Doonesbury strip, says the “idea that short phrases convey urgency is a well-established principle of writing advice.”
“But it’s not obvious to me that either in headlines or in broadcast news, the use of present participles rather than tensed verbs is generally the more urgent-seeming choice,” he says.
Liberman gives these two examples to make his point: “The town reels, its dreams of a better tomorrow up in smoke!” versus “The town reeling, its dreams of a better tomorrow up in smoke!”
He also points out that “there are famous examples where a sense of urgency is associated with long run-on sentences,” like Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
And yes we’ll end with the last few lines of the soliloquy: “and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”