Monday, January 20, 2014

More is Not Always Better

There are a lot of people who feel that using more words in a sentence makes them look smarter or more important. I don’t have statistics, but I don’t think hard research is necessary – you and I have both seen them, spoken with them, and worked with or for them.

A number of years ago, I worked for a person who felt it necessary to close business correspondence with something like this:

“If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me at the number reflected below.”

I promptly changed the business letter template to read:

“Please contact me if you have any questions.”

Short, professional, and to the point.

Truth be told, in most instances that line isn’t even necessary. Believe me, if someone has a question, he or she will let you know! But since I wasn’t in charge, I had to make a few compromises to keep the peace.

In my experience, wordiness can be a sign of insecurity (“Hey! Look at me! I know lots and lots of words, and I can use them all!”) or simply inexperience as a writer. I’m guessing the following sentence fragment from an online story falls into the latter category:

“…police say there is not believed to be a threat to the community.”

How about: “…police believe there is no threat to the community.”

Or:  “…police say they believe there is no threat to the community.”

 Words. Use them wisely.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Trends (Part III)

Recently I’ve noticed that some reporters are ditching more formal writing styles for “guy/gal on the street” vernacular. I call it:

The “Let’s Chat Over a Beer” Trend

From a crime report on a local news website:

“Another officer went to make contact with the guy.”

“Guy” should only be used if it’s part of a quote from someone the reporter has interviewed. Otherwise, just say “man” or “suspect,” or whatever term applies.

From a weather-related story by a national news outlet and republished on a local news website:

Rigs jackknifed and passenger cars slid into rigs, causing chain-reaction crashes and an enormous backup…”

Not only is this usage of “rigs” repetitive, it’s slang. The AP Stylebook, which is the guiding standard for most journalistic publications, recommends that writers avoid slang, which it calls “highly informal language…outside of conventional or standard language.”

Just like the first example, unless it’s part of a quote, other common terms should be used, e.g. “semis” or “tractor-trailers.”

Keep in mind that these are examples from actual news stories, not the comments sections!

I can only speculate that this informality trend is an attempt to appeal to a younger demographic that a) is not as attached to formal news reporting as some of us who have been around awhile; b) is bombarded by information from all directions, and thus suffers from a short attention span.

The problem is that people of all ages and backgrounds read this stuff.

While informality may be acceptable for publications that have intentionally adopted such a style, I personally don’t like seeing it in journalism. Yes, styles change over the years – just Google old issues of any newspaper or magazine and see how they differ from modern writing. I believe, however, that a writer can be readable and relevant without stooping to excessive informality.

Click here to see Trends (Part I)
Click here to see Trends (Part II)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Top English Language Pet Peeves of 2013

It wouldn't be the end of the year - or the start of the new year - without top-whatever lists. Here is a list of the top ten English language annoyances of 2013 according to Grammarly via Facebook:

Users also noted the following usages (or mis-usages) that drive them nuts:

  • Loose/lose
  • Then/than
  • To/too/two
  • I/me
  • Pacifically/specifically (I'm not sure the former is even a word!)
  • Are/our
  • Literally/figuratively
  • For all intensive purposes...
  • Unnecessary quotations marks
  • Unnecessary commas
And the list goes on.