Words & Language Toolbox
It’s doubtless stating the obvious to say that good writing begins with the single word. Obvious it may be, but we writers are often so concerned with other aspects of writing that we neglect this most basic element. Of course words matter!
A constant challenge for media writers is translating for lay readers the dense and arcane writing from specialized fields such as science, business, medicine, law, education, etc. Those messages are often as important as they are unreadable, so they deserve the media’s careful attention.
Literacy. n. the state or quality of being literate; specif., a) ability to read and write b) knowledgeability or capability … (Webster’s New World Dictionary). By that definition, we can say with surety that the media world is populated by the literate.
There’s an old Bill Trader song I like a lot. It’s been recorded by artists as various as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Jo Stafford, Hank Snow — even by Petula Clark, in French. It goes: Pardon me, if I’m sentimental When we say goodbye Don’t be angry with me should I cry When you’re gone, yet I’ll dream a little Dream as years go by Now and then there’s a fool such as I I like that song in part because it’s grammatical — a sometimes rarity in the world of pop music.
You know that weird phenomenon wherein you say a word over and over, and suddenly it doesn’t seem a word at all, just an unintelligible collection of letters? It can be any word — trilogy, say, or bunkhouse, or millisecond. You repeat it until your synapses stop firing or whatever, and you slap yourself in the head and say trilogy — wait, is that even a word?
A recent entry into the lexicon of trendy media-speak is the word optics. I don’t mean “optic” in the sense of “optic, adj., of the eye or sense of sight.” I don’t even mean “optics” (with an S) in the sense of “optics, n.,
Staff cutbacks have greatly affected media editing as well as writing and reporting — and we see the unfortunate consequence everywhere. The mistakes range from grammar to structure to the more challenging areas of organization, logic and reason. The best defense against embarrassing errors in language basics — grammar, spelling, punctuation — is for writers and reporters to submit more polished and professional work, at least in terms of simple mechanics.
We abandon the basics of good writing at our peril — such basics as sound grammar and structure, logical transition of detail, and the checklist of W’s and H. Consider this lead: “The credit ratings of 15 major banks were slashed on Thursday, the latest setback for an industry that is already grappling with global economic turmoil and weak profits.”
What you sometimes hear from broadcast journalists makes you think they could use a compendium of commonly misheard and mispronounced words. Of course, the hazard is greatest when those reporters are live instead of scripted and must therefore depend upon their own language skills.
We talk a lot in this column about the three most basic and necessary attributes of good writing: accuracy, clarity and brevity. But if we added a fourth, what might that attribute be? I think it would be interest, which is broader and harder to measure than accuracy, clarity or brevity.
Wordiness is the most common enemy of a clear, brief, compelling writing style. Wherever there’s deadwood in writing, there’s also a loss of vigor. That’s why skilled writers try to make every word count. There are many sources of deadwood, but repetitions and redundancies are among the easiest to spot and fix.
An interesting thing about monitoring media writing is seeing certain linguistic trends develop — including trends in errors. At this time last year, my 2010 folder bulged with a gaffe I hadn’t seen before but that suddenly appeared in the work of even competent writers.
During the dog days of my eighth summer, I wrote two mystery novels. To me, they were “novels” because each occupied six pages of my Big Chief tablet and represented a herculean effort. I even remember their titles. One was “Mark Her Off the List, John,” and the other was “Incident at Hidden Cave.”
You’d think some of the best writing we could find, we’d see in announcements — those brief, often urgent little blurbs and utterances. I mean: one line, two, three. How hard could it be? Pretty hard, apparently. Here’s a 12-word sentence from a medical notice: Send this to every person you know, it may save their life!
You’ve probably heard regarding usage that when enough of us are wrong, we’re right. That’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Yes, words must mean what most educated readers think they mean. Definitions are not set in stone.
So, with no idea I was triggering a discussion thread of 85 comments, I posted this note on my Facebook profile: “Here’s a word that I’m thoroughly sick of: TOTALLY. Here’s another word I’m thoroughly sick of: AWESOME. Here are two words I’m thoroughly sick of: TOTALLY AWESOME.”