Thursday, February 24, 2005


Rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling are increasingly ignored. So why is it that certain words, phrases and writing styles are so common in U.S. newspapers when no one is insisting on them, let alone formally passing them on? And why do they all tend toward the stilted and pretentious?

I’ve already ranted about “prior to.” As a copy editor, when I see this phrase, I change it to “before.” The phrase “adjacent to” is also dead on arrival. It becomes “next to.” I show occasional mercy to “due to,” but I always test to see if “because of” isn’t better. (This is one of the few on which I’m suspicious of my own suspicion, as “due to” is shorter than its substitute.)

Those are just the beginning.

Newspapers frequently have people “receiving” something. I make them “get” it. Newspapers are also full of the “purchasing” of things. “Buying” is my replacement.

Why do reporters write in ways so alien to how people talk, even on the simplest of phrases? President Bush yesterday defended the invasion of Iraq. The city council last week passed an amendment to a zoning law. And what’s the origin of the classic two-word abomination “said Smith”? Wept Jesus!

There are always exceptions to rules, and I can think of necessary exceptions to many of the things I’m protesting above. Most every time, though, these are indefensible, or at least needless, linguistic misdemeanors — tropes writers fall back on despite it being just as easy, or easier, to write in ways that make more sense.

For instance, why load stories down with unnecessary and redundant time elements? Stories are clogged with things that are “new,” even if context already makes it clear. A sports team wants to build a new stadium, even though they couldn’t build an old one. The mayor is unveiling a new plan, but it’s unclear why he’d unveil an old one. (Then the writer goes on to refer, over and over again, to the “new” this and “new” that. Yes, yes, yes! We know!) Similarly, we’re frequently reminded of when people were “first introduced.”

“Yesterday” is another burdensome word. A lot of news is based on things that happened the previous day, and the newsworthy occurrence is pointed out at the beginning of an article — which will then go on to note reactions to that occurrence, most of them painstakingly annotated with “yesterday.” A car crash took five lives yesterday, and relatives of the dead said yesterday that they were devastated.


Okay. I’m done.


Winkks said...

Talk about “alien to how people talk“, I would love to read your thoughts on legal documents! Most of the words on such a document are alien to most people, then you must sign on the dotted line if you agree with everything the alien said in the document. Where to sign is the only part that is understood.
Do you suppose aliens write their documents in a simple, “run Spot run”, format to confuse the reader?

I enjoyed your Blog!

Scape7 said...

Legal documents terrify me to sleep. Or they bore me into panic. Either way, I have a difficult time coping with them — thus proving my humanity, I suppose, although I'm unsure how the lawyers among us will feel about your insinuation that they're aliens ...

I, however, am grateful for your readership. Thank you.

Indri said...

Probably the very best thing I read in junior high (at least in school), was Orwell's essay on language. I think every kid should read it when they're first learning to write essays.

He makes valuable points like, why say "at the present time" when "now" will do? Encourages very clean writing.

Scape7 said...

Right. And Strunk and White’s “Elements of style” with its classic injunction that “Vigorous writing is concise,” which I will not, of course, quote at length.