Three journalistic tics you can safely drop

The Baltimore Sun

Journalism instructors, break the chains of journalese for your charges.

I work with colleagues too far gone in sin to ever repent—some are still reflexively changing over to more than, like to such as. But you have the impressionable young under your guidance before they are schooled in bad habits. You can teach them to write as native speakers of English use the language rather than in a strained and artificial newspaper-speak.

You can start here.

Stop putting the day of the week before the verb. Presumably, constructions like (not such as) “The president Thursday announced …” or “The governor yesterday vetoed …” are meant to convey immediacy. They do not. Instead, they violate the customary word order of English, in which the day follows the verb: “The president announced Thursday” and “The governor vetoed a bill yesterday. …”

Watch what you say when you place a date before a noun. If you write about “Marilyn Monroe’s 1956 marriage to Arthur Miller,” the date preceding the noun can be understood to specify which marriage, though Monroe married Miller only once. “Elizabeth Taylor’s 1964 marriage to Richard Burton” would be fine, to distinguish that marriage from her 1975 marriage to Burton. Write instead “Marilyn Monroe’s marriage to Arthur Miller in 1956.”

Give up on the bogus split-verb rule. I’m looking at you, Associated Press Stylebook. If the split infinitive prohibition is a superstition,* then the split-verb prohibition is a fortiori a baseless crotchet. In English, the adverb nestles snugly between the auxiliary verb and the main verb. We have always written and spoken that way. Writers should never shun idiomatic usage. You would truly serve the reader’s understanding by writing in ordinary English rather than journalese. Got it?

This is the sentence the AP Stylebook uses to illustrate this supposed rule: “There stood the wagon that we had early last autumn left by the barn.”** That is not an error of grammar; that is merely awkward writing. And even the stylebook editors, trying to have it both ways, follow that monstrosity with a series of sentences with adverbs in the normal place, suggesting that they are “sometimes” acceptable. If they had any shame, they would drop the whole entry.

Longtime readers of newspapers are used to these conventions and do not blink at them. But, as I have suggested before, most longtime newspaper readers are now at a location not served by the circulation department. If you would like for your students to draw the attention of living readers, advise them not to imitate the practices of hacks.



*It is. Did you pass over the second sentence of this post without remark?

**Where, for Fowler’s sake, did they get that sentence? From a literal translation from the German? From a freshman composition class at Moo U?

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