Wick Communications

Translating jargon to English

In Writing techniques on April 17, 2014 at 3:16 pm

Coast Guard

The capsized vessel was located and after a thorough search did not find anyone in distress. Coast Guard, and other responding federal and regional law enforcement agencies determined the vessel had characteristics similar to that of a panga.

That very special collection of words in paragraph form comes to you from the U.S. Coast Guard. It was delivered via email after 911 calls reported an overturned boat off the coast of Half Moon Bay. Obviously, that sounds like a serious situation, and the Coast Guard deployed a couple of boats and a helicopter to look for anyone who may have gone overboard.

The agency determined that the boat likely belonged to drug smugglers. Pangas are open-hulled boats common in third-world countries. Think Somali pirates in the movie, Captain Phillips. Perhaps these guys transferred their booty to another vessel … or something. At any rate, no one seemed to be in the water and no one was reported missing. Hence the press release.

Whatever the circumstances, the discovery of an overturned boat is news in places like Half Moon Bay. So we hunger for information from official sources. Too often it looks something like what you see above. And almost as often news agencies regurgitate it in similar fashion. …

In fact, it can be hard to translate official jargon into official English. It’s easy to adopt the lingo and doing so can even suggest to readers that the reporter is in the know in some ways. If you speak the language of the cops you must have the inside scoop, right?

It’s also lazy writing. One reason junk like that – or junk that is thinly veiled presser rewrite – gets in our esteemed newspapers is that we begin by copying and pasting. I do it sometimes, too. You copy all that malarkey from the email into a fresh, unsuspecting Word or Google document and it sullies everything it touches. You try to modify that stuff instead of writing it anew. That is almost always a mistake.

Try this: Call up the presser and begin a new document beside it. Refer to the press release, but write it as if you were relating it to the guy sitting next to you at the bar. If you do, it will go something like this:

The Coast Guard searched the waters around Half Moon Bay after finding a small boat capsized in the surf on Monday. Authorities didn’t find anyone in the water and theorized the boat might have belonged to smugglers.

It may not be perfect, but it’s a pair of complete sentences in the English language. Just as you leave the police work to the experts, you want to do the writing yourself. Do your level best to translate cop talk into something worth reading.

Clay

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