by Ed Thompson
The fragrant smoke of a Padron 3000 cigar envelopes the studio/office of my new home and I ponder the state of our society. One afternoon, not long ago, on one of the stations in my cluster I heard a commercial of the “conversation that you never hear in nature” variety. Within that spot, the following line of dialogue came out of my speakers, “Where are they located at?” Huh? What did I just hear? Was that…no? It couldn’t have been. “Where are they located…AT?” Who wrote a spot on my radio station with a sentence that ended in a participle? Quick! Someone had better find Sister Mary Steel Ruler so I can get medieval on somebody’s knuckles. It didn’t take me long to find the session on a master CD and edit the offending grammatical transgression. It’s taken me longer to simmer down after hearing such a blatant mistake.
I have certain pet peeves. One of which is obviously bad grammar. My mother was the first to introduce me to the proper use of the English language by correcting my usage of the phrase, “me and my brother.” It was quite embarrassing because she corrected me in front of the entire church congregation as the Pastor was interviewing me during Easter services. It goes without saying, I have never used, “me and (insert another name here),” again. Edwin Newman, former NBC newsman and author of several books including Edwin Newman, On Language, remarked that the decline in a society can be traced to the disrespect of its own language. I wouldn’t go as far as Mr. Newman with regard to the decline of an entire society solely because of bad grammar. It’s more personal for me. I believe using the language poorly or improperly does show a lack of respect for the person to whom you’re speaking.
I always had trouble in school in language class. I never seemed to grasp an understanding of all the rules and exceptions. In fact, it was my junior year in high school before I eventually heard the “pop.” (The “pop,” by the way, is the sound one’s head makes when its extricated from a certain bodily orifice.) I was a marginal student in Mr. Dave Williams’ English class at DeWitt Central High School. I remember that I didn’t do well on a particular pop quiz so I asked Mr. Williams where I was going wrong. He suggested that I listen to an album by Frank Sinatra called Watertown. What? Frank Sinatra? In those days, I listened to Rush, Kiss and other bands that make my parents’ flesh crawl. How in the world is Frank Sinatra going to help me in English class? He asked me if I trusted him. I asked what he meant and he said that if I would listen to the album he would make sure that nobody else would know that I was listening to ole Blue Eyes. What could I say? I had no choice. The embarrassment to my eight-track tape listening metal-head friends would have been bad enough. But, Mr. Williams wasn’t just my English teacher. He was also my track coach and I didn’t want to run extra wind sprints, so I agreed to the assignment.
I can hardly remember any specifics about the Sinatra LP. It wasn’t one of his more recognized works. But, while listening to the way Frank’s lyrics worked within the melodies and harmonies, it came to me. English, or any language for that matter, is not unlike a song. Its words and phrases flow like notes and chords, and when a bad note or chord is struck, it’s instantly apparent. More than 20 years later, I still can’t quote you rules or exceptions of language with any degree of accuracy. So I rely on the one organ of my body that has rarely failed me with regard to my career. My ear. If it sounds wrong, I can hear it.
So that is how I approach my writing. I consider all commercials to be a conversation. Sometimes, as in a one-voice spot, it’s a monologue. Others, as in the conversations that can occur in nature, it’s dialogue. First I listen with my mind what the conversation should sound like. Then I type out that conversation. I make sure that the language I use flows like the notes or chords of a song. I make sure that the story I tell has a complete beginning, middle and end. Then I edit for content, and yes…grammar.
There are exceptions, of course. Maybe the characters in the story use the language differently. Maybe they have an accent or a speech impediment. So I adjust the dialogue to fit the character. But when a commercial for a golf course or a soda shop has two ordinary, everyday people, and one of them asks, “Where are they located at,” you’ll hear it; and so will the thousand of listeners to your station. Then you can take whatever credibility that client was hoping to build with those listeners and kiss it bye-bye, along with the money that client won’t spend with you next time.