When poor editing is akin to selling contraband goods to innocent readers

Misplacement of a word can drastically alter the meaning of what the writer or broadcaster has in mind.

Friday February 12 2016

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In any language — but especially English — misplacement of a word can drastically alter the meaning of what the writer or broadcaster or any other utterer has in mind.

Yet it occurs all the time in all of Kenya’s English-language media. For that reason, the reader does not always get the real meaning of what a reporter or newsreel reader has in mind.

A good example occurred in a Standard caption on Tuesday, February 9. Wrote the sub-editor: “Augustine Mwachoki Mboga assesses the damage caused by elephants at his farm in Saala location, Taita-Taveta County, yesterday”.

Note the location of “yesterday”, the crucial adverb of time. The question the writer raises is: What exactly happened “yesterday”?

From the sentence, the adverb yesterday can refer either to the damage by elephants or to the assessment by Mr Mboga. But from the way the sentence is structured, it is simply impossible to be quite sure.

Having worked for the Daily Nation as a sub, a revise sub, the chief sub and (briefly) the managing editor, I can easily guess how the bloomer passed muster.

Probably, in his role as caption writer, the photographer was the originator of the horror. Mastery of the relevant language is never one of what our newspaper editors examine properly when they hire cameramen and women.


That is why, although most of our photographers are good manipulators of their contraptions, the subs have to help them with captions. But, when (in the 1980s), I worked as the Daily Nation’s chief sub and (briefly) managing editor, almost all our cameramen and women were by no means the most highly educated cadres in the world.

That is probably why, this week, a photographer drafted a caption which — in Shakespeare’s phrase — failed to “...make assurance double sure...” which finite verb was which.

And when two whole language technicians — the sub and the editorial copy reviser — allowed the bloomer to pass muster, the damage to Elizabeth Regina’s tongue was complete. The question that the sub posed is: Of the two finite verbs — “assesses” and “(was) caused” — which exactly did the word “yesterday” qualify adverbially?


From the photographer’s draft caption and the sub-editor’s green light to it, what can you confidently say took place “yesterday” — the “cause” of the damage or only the “assessment” of it?

It is tautological to say, but the tragedy is that, in the “free market”, communication of correct information is what any commercial newspaper claims to be in the market to sell.

Whenever you use bad grammar, you are not only shortchanging all the buyers of your newspaper but also misleading them into taking actions that might tragically alter the course of Kenya’s history in the direction of Armageddon. In short, you are selling goods that, because they are faulty, are socially perilous in the extreme.

Failure to make this difference unmistakably clear is failure of communication. The writer, sub-editor and revise editor have caused the whole company to commit the crime of selling dangerously fake goods to unsuspecting consumers.

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