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The Baltimore Sun

The portentous tone

One of the great hazards of journalism is the temptation to inflate the importance of some mundane event or circumstance, either to impress the reader or to bolster the writer’s sense of self-importance. The form of air pumped up in these operations is typically an adjective or stock phrase.

Dramatic, for example, is a wasted adjective against which I have inveighed for years. If the circumstances are genuinely dramatic, they require no commentary; if they are not, no accumulation of adjectival clutter will make them so. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by a gunman as he rode in an open car through downtown Dallas would not benefit from being written as In a dramatic midday shooting, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in n open car through downtown Dallas.

I was reminded of this unfortunate tendency by seeing in The Sun last week a reference to pre-dawn darkness. Are our readers such simpletons that they have to be told that it is dark before dawn? Or is it that pre-dawn darkness is darker than other darkness? There is always something sinister or disturbing about the pre-dawn darkness; that’s when police raids take place, or people lie asleep, unaware that a tornado is bearing down on them.

Portentous derives from portent, a sign of some impending calamity or momentous event. The adjective originally meant ominous, presaging some disaster. By association with pretentious, it has taken on the sense of pompous, self-important.

Dramatic and pre-dawn darkness are merely a couple of examples. I would be obliged if you, the hardy band of readers of this blog, would submit your own nominations of irritating journalistic inflation and excess.

 

 

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