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You want prescriptivism, I'll give you prescriptivism

The Baltimore Sun

At HeadsUp Fred Vultee writes, more in sorrow than in anger, that the Detroit Free Press not only allowed an "It's official" lead to run but repeated it in the headline. Somewhere in Michigan an editor knows no shame.

No doubt the reporter and editor thought that the opening was sparkling and fresh, like the Baltimore Sun reporter who once objected to my deleting her hackneyed "X is not alone" transition by saying, "When I use it, it's not a cliche."*

Among the many reasons that people are discouraged from reading newspapers (crappy customer service being as likely as anything else to do in the industry), surely the relentless repetition of obvious and worn-out storytelling devices must occupy a prominent place.

Years ago, Dick Thien catalogued some of the most egregious offenders for the American Copy Editors Society. He had them all: the dictionary lead (the "Webster's defines" also beloved of editorial writers and preachers), the one-word lead, the "that's what" lead, the "welcome to" lead, the King James lead in inept Jacobean English. They're all there.

If you are in the paragraph game, chances are excellent that you have at least once, and perhaps often, resorted to these ancient wheezes. There is nothing to be done about it; once published, such a text is out of your hands, leaving only the stain on your soul. But I have a suggestion.

Print out Dick Thein's list of offenders and post it on the wall of your cubicle, with a vow to shun lazy expedients yourself or, if you are an editor, to stop them in their tracks.

Go and sin no more.



*I'm not making this up, you know.




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