In Writing techniques on January 14, 2016 at 2:52 pm
In case you missed it, the apocalypse is upon us. The American Dialect Society, an organization dedicated to the proper use of words, has made the singular they its Word of the Year. Or should I say the American Dialect Society has made they their Word of the Year?
Either way, I guess. It’s only a matter convention, right? Who cares? While you are at it, go ahead and eat the family cat and urinate in the street. No one will mind. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Just because some proper fussbudget told you they was plural shouldn’t stop you from doing what you please in 2016. There are no rules now. They won’t mind. (By the way, the ADS made #blacklivesmatter its Word of the Year for 2014. That’s not even a word, for crying out loud.)
I have spent roughly a third of my adult life editing around the word they as if it were a scorpion composed entirely of letters skittering across the desert of some writer’s dusty prose. You could argue I could have spent my time on more productive concerns. All I know is it just makes my skin crawl to read
The U.S. Department of Agriculture changed their rules today… or
Every American deserves their tax refund … or
Even writing these examples made their head hurt!
The Washington Post says it’s OK to conflate the singular and the plural in this way. The slackers who took control of the English language say I’m a prude for thinking differently. This guy right here says people like me, well, they can get stuffed!
They will win, because your hero is outnumbered. I will continue to change they into grammatically correct pronouns because it’s the right thing to do. I think you should as well. … Read the rest of this entry »
In journalism on November 20, 2015 at 8:50 am
Last week, Poynter joined a storied tradition of making fun of the use of words that only a journalist could love. You know the ones I’m talking about.
- Congress fired its first salvo at the president on Monday…
- The Pontiff issued his holiday decree from the Vatican…
- The candidate used the new poll numbers to bolster his claim…
We all know there are words floating around that we use just because they sound all journalistical. When was the last time you heard anyone other than an ink-stained wretch refer to a fire as a blaze?
Much of the time, these words exist as part of a language I might call headlinese. They provide action words that are short and don’t mimic what’s in the body of the story.
Personally, I say no harm done, really. I agree that we should seek to be clear and concise and conversational. But in the list of crimes committed in the daily war of words we know as journalism, I would rank this one as a misdemeanor. (Speaking of words no one says.) Plus, it’s not going to hurt any of our readers to learn a new word now and then. … Read the rest of this entry »
In Writing on February 12, 2015 at 2:47 pm
When you are an editor, you are bound to come across various usage misdemeanors and felonious crimes of style that drive you crazy. It’s a hazard of the job.
Sometimes these peculiarities say as much about said editor as they do the ruffian who made the mistake. For instance, I continue to rail about the “over/more than thing” (over conveys a spatial relationship as in “the book is over the desk,” while more than is a quantitative thing) even though AP recently ruled it was a distinction without a difference. No matter! I soldier on, berating any poor soul who writes, “there are over 200 million people in America.” But I digress.
Recently, Mark Memmott, the standards editor for NPR went on a tirade about misusing the modifier “countless.” While he did not find countless incidents of misuse, he did find a lot. Two-hundred-and-fifty-five in NPR broadcasts and Web publishing in the last year, to be exact. I wouldn’t know about this particular and wholly justifiable crusade were it not for Benjamin Mullin’s column on the Poynter site.
As Memmott points out, countless means “too many to count; innumerable; myriad.” Which means there aren’t really “countless” reincarnations of Lauren Bacall’s career or “countless” handshakes from a particular politician on the campaign trail.
Just for fun, I decided to check “countless” Wick papers (OK, three) and see how often we misuse the term. I counted 28 uses of the word in the past year in the Pierre Capital Journal. The misused modifier appeared as often as not in obituaries, so that hyperbole is likely due to family submissions. There were 27 “countlesses” in the last year in the Mat-Su Frontiersman. … Read the rest of this entry »
In Reading on January 30, 2015 at 10:26 am
Twice in the last week, really smart people have mentioned to me that they feel limited by how fast they are able to read, and that they are doing something about it. It made me wonder whether they are on to something we should all be thinking about.
Avi Tuschman is a political anthropologist and holds a doctorate from Stanford. He speaks seven languages and has written a widely regarded book called, “Our Political Nature.” Suffice to say, he thinks about language and words and learning a lot.
Avi mentioned to me that he has “given up” and turned to an application called Spritz. Perhaps you have heard of it. The idea is this: Traditionally, when you read a line of text, your eye skitters along from left to right, settling ever so briefly on each word in order to determine its meaning before moving on. (You may be able to pick up groups of words, but the idea is the same. Start and stop, start and stop.) Spritz says when we do this we are looking for the “optimal recognition point” – some place in the heart of the word that allows us to nearly instantaneously determine its meaning.
The trouble is all that eye movement, according to Spritz.
If you are like me, you probably read about 300 words a minute, give or take. Spritz claims it can improve that markedly by moving the words for you and highlighting the OPR in red. It’s difficult to explain but easy to understand once you try it yourself. And you can test yourself for free here. Read the rest of this entry »
In Writing on July 18, 2014 at 8:16 am
Hey, how do you like getting older? I know I am enjoying my creaking knees and poor memory. And don’t we look great with our new crow’s feet and wrinkly everything?
What was I saying?
Oh, right. Aging isn’t always so great. Perhaps that is why so many of us wince when we’re called “senior citizens” or “elderly.” Last week, NPR ran the results of a small unscientific poll of its listeners to see how older people wish to be referred. Turns out we really don’t like being referred to that way at all. But “older people” and “senior” (without “citizen,” thank you very much) seemed to be the least objectionable.
For it’s part, the AP Stylebook says to use “elderly” and “senior citizen” sparingly. “Do not refer to a person as elderly unless it is clearly relevant to the story. It is appropriate in generic phrases that do not refer to specific individuals (such as “concern for the elderly.”)
On balance, I think I like “senior,” which to me refers to someone 65 and above. It seems to me “older people” is a relative term. I was taught that “elderly” referred to someone 80 and above, but that doesn’t seem to be the norm. … Read the rest of this entry »
In Writing on June 19, 2014 at 4:05 pm
Kudos to the Los Angeles Times for tackling one of my pet peeves in its latest ethics policy. The policy is the subject of a Poynter post here.
Superlatives are a bane of the modern world. Actually, they were probably a bane of the ancient world as well, now that I think about it. (“Marcus Agrippa’s pantheon is the greatest building of all time,” said Augustus…)
It’s one thing for a politician to proclaim some new program the “biggest” or the “most important” but it’s another for us to pass it along. We are supposed to check such claims and not mindlessly pass them along in the manner of a stenographer.
Specifically, the L.A. Times policy says:
Superlatives such as “biggest,” “worst” and “most” should be employed only when the writer has proof. It is the responsibility of assigning editors and copy editors to challenge all questionable claims. The burden of proof rests with the writer; it is not the desk’s responsibility to prove the writer wrong.
It is unacceptable to hedge an unverified or unverifiable assertion with words such as “arguably” or “perhaps.” Our job is to report what is true, not what might be.
Can I get an Amen? … Read the rest of this entry »
In Writing on April 24, 2014 at 4:40 pm
As with Oreos, sometimes fewer words are better than more words. Succinct is always better than verbose.
I recently went on a public diatribe about meaningless adjectives. (You can see it here. It’s in the April 22 report.) I decided to call these scourges relational adjectives; they are words like “small” and “huge” and “awesome” that only work in relation to some other thing that you don’t even mention in your story.
Alas, that is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to things you should throw out of your nice, neat story. Here’s quite a list of literally amazing stuff that you could really just do without. (If you read the list, I swear you’ll laugh…)
The point, as writer Shanna Mallon suggests in the above piece, is that lean writing is strong writing. I’ll spare you examples of bloated copy if only you’ll promise to reread your next story and look for relational adjectives and the fillers mentioned in Mallon’s piece. Do that and I will consider this a banner day. Really. Literally.
In journalism on March 28, 2014 at 8:08 am
Recently, I was talking with a former intern who has now gone on to great things. She was telling me that, when she was a student journalist, she used the word “homosexual” in the school newspaper and caught hell for it from gay and lesbian support groups on campus. I told her that I hadn’t heard that anyone found the term offensive and was surprised at that reaction.
That’s because I was ignorant.
Sunday’s New York Times included an interesting discourse on the word and its usage. I read it and came away convinced that I had been wrong and that the word should be expunged from our coverage. (By the way, take a look at this cool Times Topics page on homosexuality. Did you know you can make collections like this yourself in Blox?)
I can see that the word has been co-opted by haters as a way of marginalizing people. And I was moved by what should have been obvious: The word is a coupling of “homo,” which has long been a derogative, and “sexuality.” It’s just strange to reduce a class of people to its sexuality, isn’t it? Do you commonly refer to people as “heterosexuals?” Aren’t we more than who we love? … Read the rest of this entry »
In Writing on March 21, 2013 at 4:26 pm
Here is a silly idea I am stealing from Daily Writing Tips. It combines two of my favorite past times: Pointless time-wasting and mindless competition. Call it: The word championship.
So here’s what you do. Click on this bracket and print it out. Then invite 63 of your best friends (or better yet, get a dozen or a half-dozen or just a few friends or coworkers) and take turns filling in the bracket with your favorite words. Then go down the bracket and vote on best word. Match up the winners, etc., etc. It’s just like March Madness only it doesn’t exploit 18-year-old kids for profit!
But, Clay … why would I do that? Heck, I don’t know. Because it’s fun.
Far as I know, there are no rules. You can decide to use dictionaries and thesauruses or not. You are free to make up whatever criteria you like. Maybe you just like how orangutan looks on the page, or you are just the type of gal who is always committing apocopes. The winner gets to drop out of school and join a crummy NBA team. Or maybe just go back to work.
Consider it a vocabulary-building exercise. Tweet the idea to your followers. Blog about the winning word. Post them here.
In Writing on January 13, 2012 at 9:34 am
“An author ought to consider himself, not as a gentleman who gives a private or eleemosynary treat, but rather as one who keeps a public ordinary, at which all persons are welcome for their money.”
That is the first sentence of one of the most famous books of all time, “Tom Jones,” by Henry Fielding. You are forgiven if you stopped reading at “eleemosynary.” It means something relating to charity or alms at church. I know only because I had to look it up.
Here’s the thing about words you have to look up. They are jewels you can pocket and use again. Just keep in mind that nothing is more gaudy, more gauche, than wearing a big ol’ rock on your finger when everyone else is dressed for a barn dance. You have to know what you are doing when you pull eleemosynary out of the drawer. If you ask me, Fielding should have saved eleemosynary for another day. I don’t think you do yourself any favors if you send readers to the dictionary in the first sentence of a book that is 968 pages long.
I got to thinking about words and how great writers use them when I took this online vocabulary test. Because I like to brag, I’ll tell you I got ‘em all right. I suspect many of you will as well. It’s not that hard. Read the rest of this entry »