A number of media grammatical pet peeves

I have a number of grammatical pet peeves when it comes to the way the media report the news . . .

Pet Peeve No. 1: the phrase “a number of.” It says absolutely nothing, of course. The number could be two, or it could be 1,000. How is a reader to know?

Experience has taught me that when journalists use the phrase “a number of,” it’s because they don’t know how many and probably didn’t take the time to research the actual number. They only know that there have been some . . . Or, there weren’t many, but they want to make it seem like there were more, as when a critic writes a column after receiving two or three emails from readers and says something like, “In response to a number of reader emails, yadda yadda yadda.”

As an editor, I always change the term when I come across it in copy. I try to get the writer to be more specific. Failing that, I change the term to “some” unless I am positive there have been “several.” Neither, of course, is perfectly satisfactory, but the phrase “a number of” is a clear indication to me — both as an editor and a reader — that the writer doesn’t have any idea of the actual number or is trying to inflate a small number.

Pet Peeve No. 2: So-and-so set “a new record.” Well, a record is by nature new, so the word “new” is redundant. But we hear the phrase a lot in sports reporting. It’s wrong. It should be: So-and-so set a record.

Pet Peeve No. 3: An autopsy will be performed “to determine the cause of death.” The phrase is redundant, but it is often used erroneously. In fact, an autopsy is performed for that very reason. The word “autopsy” says it all; one does not need the additional explanatory phrase. The sentence is complete after the word “performed.”

Pet Peeve No. 4: She gave birth to “a baby boy.” Thank God it wasn’t a teenage boy, eh? The word baby is redundant — for obvious reasons. She gave birth to a boy.

There: I just gave you a number of four pet peeves.

How about you? What grammatical errors in media reporting bug you?

— Jillian

5 thoughts on “A number of media grammatical pet peeves

  1. Have you ever read Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style?” They give a number (and no, I don’t recall how many) examples of such redundancies, like the phrase “at this point in time.” Miss Manners also has some.

    A pet peeve non-answer is when I ask people how long something has been happening, and they say “quite a while.” It is completely useless as a phrase, since that could mean minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or years.

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