It’s hard to maintain Canadian English. Even that paragon of virtue, the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, is flagging in its efforts to uphold the language’s integrity. Faced with competition from free online dictionaries, Oxford University Press laid off all four staff members in its Canadian dictionary division in October, including esteemed editor-in-chief Katherine Barber. The Gatekeeper of Grammar

Fortunately, Judy Maddren—resident grammar guru, pronunciation pundit, and terminology tutor at CBC—still has her job. Host of morning radio show World Report since 1993, Maddren succeeded Russ Germain as media language adviser in 2003. She alone has access to the CBC’s Language File (or lang file, for short)—12,000 entries of correct pronunciation and usage, common grammar mistakes and specific instances of CBC style. (Since 2003, Blair Shewchuk, cbc.ca’s senior editor of journalistic standards, has kept an online version, though Maddren often contributes to it.)

The RRJ Online asked Maddren how she does it, why it matters and what it would take to get the CBC to use “impact” as a verb.

On being a language adviser:
The first word to highlight here is adviser. Some people call me a language cop, but that’s not in my job description, and it could drive you crazy if you tried to do that. What we try to encourage is fellow broadcasters and editors talking to people and saying “Your verb didn’t match your subject here,” and that sort of thing. I might go after someone who’s mispronouncing. We just issued a pronunciation guide on Barack Obama because we had some people saying “Ba-RACK O-BAMA,” so I would put out a note on that or I might call somebody and say, “If you’re going to do another story on this, you might want to know that….” [the correct pronounciation is bah-‘RAWK oh-‘BAW-mah]

In terms of grammar, that is supposed to be caught when an editor vets a reporter. On my own show, I guess I’m the last gatekeeper of grammar. So if I catch the verb and the subject not matching, it’s gone through several people by then. Pretty bad!

On pronunciation and contentious terms:
I get a fair number of e-mails from people. Two this morning, actually. There’s a story from a place in Northern Alberta that some people say is pronounced “Fort Chip-a-WY-an” and some say “Fort Chip-a-WAN [when it’s actually chip-eh-‘WY-un or CHIP-uh-‘WAHN].” So that’s one thing I’m dealing with. The other is, apparently the term “oil sands” is an industry term, and “tar sands” is an environmentalist term. So we have an entry about that in our lang file, but they want me to go after it again. People come to me, they phone, but mostly it’s e-mails. I had ten e-mails from people apoplectic about Barack Obama’s pronunciation. I try to do what I can during my shift in a day, and then I get a day a month to think and consider and write this monthly note to send out.

On judgment calls:
It varies. If it’s a pronunciation, I try to get as close as I can to the actual people, sometimes that’s as simple as calling the embassy of their country, or sometimes, because it’s so early, I can phone their companies and get their phone messages and hear them say their own names. [Laughs]. In terms of grammar I have Fowler’s, and Canadian references, and online references, and sometimes I will speak to a professor at a university. In terms of style, we will sometimes convene a committee of broadcasters. For instance, when the Iraq war was on we had a senior editors meeting to talk about war language, what we would accept and what we wouldn’t, what were the American military terms. “Collateral damage” for instance, is one we recommended against, because it doesn’t actually say “severed limbs” and that sort of thing. Sometimes I will talk to one of my senior managers about a term.

The most recent example I can give you is, we had recommended saying “former students” of residential schools rather than “survivors,” because not all of them termed themselves survivors. So we recommended “former students who were abused.” But that was viewed by the native community as highly “washing over” the issue. So we had a conference call with about seventeen people across the country talking about that issue. We came out with a note that said it was permissible to say “survivor,” but to be clear who you’re speaking about. Because if people who went through the schools felt that they had actually had a good experience and didn’t see themselves as survivors, then we should not call them that. So it was a reminder to be clear about who you’re speaking about, and how they view themselves.

On colloquialisms:
It’s very difficult. On the one hand we’re supposed to sound conversational in our broadcasts, on the other, we have to try to present the news in a non-judgmental, clear way. So where’s the line with colloquial language? We try to tell our writers, “Don’t use adjectives, use a verb to be descriptive.” Take out all the adjectives, that’s one way to try to avoid getting a particular point of view across. For one thing, we recommend not using the word “kids” in the news. Children. And not to describe somebody as a “grandmother.” Is that germane to the story? Are you trying to make people feel sorry for this woman? It’s quite difficult. The other issue is computer-related phrases. To a certain demographic, and I would say 35 and under, all those words are second nature and everybody knows what they are. But for the wider audience, we need to describe them sometimes.

On repeat offenders:
In terms of pronunciation you’ve got some people with really terrible ears—they just don’t hear it! [For example,] we don’t use native or aboriginal as a noun, it’s an adjective—“native people.” And it’s like talking about disabled people. That’s one of my pet peeves—calling them “the disabled” or “the homeless.” That’s a “we and they” story. As in, “the homeless, oh, those people over there,” and most of us are one step away.

On profanity:
When is profanity or slang appropriate in a broadcast? When I was first working here, “fuck” or “shit” didn’t get to air. Because it wasn’t considered germane to the story, you didn’t need to. But that’s shifted. We do hear that now and then. On World Report, because we do recognize ourselves as a breakfast program, we will often warn listeners “You may find this disturbing,” or “You may find the language offensive,” because we know there are people with kids sitting at the kitchen table.

On “impact” as a verb:
I hate it. But again, it’s in the [Canadian Oxford] dictionary. This is completely ungrammatical, but I have words that I tell people, “That’s a word I’m not going to the wall on.” There are all sorts of other things that I’m going to deal with, I’m not going to argue and fight with them about stuff, but I do not use impact as a verb. It’s very interesting what’s in the dictionary. Yeah—“Impact: noun, transitive verb, often followed by on, against, etc. or intransitive, to have an impact.” So there you go! It’s never over ’til it’s over, right?