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You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

Whip inflation now

The Baltimore Sun

The other day I was grousing about a writer addicted to the phrase the vast majority of. (Grousing for editors is the equivalent of the “runner’s high” that marathoners claim to experience.) Someone challenged me, pointing out that majorities are of different sizes and asking what could be objectionable about identifying the dimensions of one.

It’s a fair comment. There is nothing inherently untoward about the phrase the vast majority of, but when a writer uses it twice in the span of three sentences, my face starts to itch, I strike it out, and I substitute most.

Journalism is subject to an inflationary tendency. If we are writing about it, it must be important, and we must show the reader that it is important so that we will be seen to be important. Ordinary majorities, mundane majorities of fifty percent plus one, don’t meet our standards. Our majorities have to be vast.

How do I know this? I know this because vast majorities are pretty much the only ones that come across my desk.

I usually strike dramatic too. If the event isn’t exciting or significant enough to be recognizable on its own terms, calling it dramatic won’t make it so for the reader.

Inflation is how controversies become firestorms. Large quantities become massive. Any actor who has appeared on television for two or more seasons can be labeled iconic. Sad occurrences are tragedies. Any sequence of events is a saga. I’ve learned to turn a jaundiced eye on first and only.

Lance and drain, lance and drain. There’s more to the job than changing that to which and which to that.

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