Play ball

Andrew Zaleski, a senior at Loyola University Maryland who is serving as an intern on The Sun’s copy desk this semester, commented in his blog this week on a construction in sports articles that he finds annoying:

“The [insert team's name] return [insert player's name] for a second season.”

The reason: I have never heard even the most avid sports-buff friends of mine use “return” as a verb in the above context. People will say “Mike Vick is coming back for a second season,” or “Mike Vick returns for a second season,” or “Mike Vick will be returning,” but never do I hear people say “The Eagles return Mike Vick.” My next question, upon hearing that, is to ask where they are returning him. To the supermarket? The department store? Outside the NFL draft, is there a special store that houses players in hermetically-sealed packaging before throwing them on an AstroTurf field to live their lives in states of football-induced concussive bliss?

Jargon, whether specialized terms or constructions that vary from standard written English, serves two purposes. It expresses specialized meanings that cannot easily or conveniently be rendered in common language, and it identifies the writer and the reader who grasps it as being member of an in-group.

Sports stories are regularly written for fans—a non-fan can sometimes read half a dozen or more paragraphs in a sports story without being able to identify what sport is being played. And that is what the audience wants, to be on the inside, to be in the know.* If you ever listen to sports talk radio, you understand that any given fan knows better how to run the team than the current management.

The trick for the editor of this copy is to recognize which examples of jargon are apt to convey to the reader that cosy feeling of being in the know, and which are merely annoying tics. Mr. Zaleski has fastened on one that looks like the latter.


*The same thing holds true for a good deal of political reporting, which, rather than dwelling tediously on policies and what their impact on the reader might be, prefers to focus on the excitement of who’s up and who’s down today Significantly, much political coverage is referred to within the business as “horse racing” or “insider baseball.”



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