John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Friday, August 28, 2009

What's the story?

Two articles in this morning’s Baltimore Sun reach for the same cliche with reference to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy:

BOSTON — In an extraordinary outpouring of public emotion, thousands of people in Massachusetts solemnly lined highways, overpasses and city streets Thursday to pay their last respects to Sen. Edward Kennedy, the last patriarch of America’s most storied political dynasty.

And:

And with the loss of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and his storied ability to eke out bipartisan compromises, lawmakers are eyeing those consensus proposals. ...

The advice sometimes given to aspiring writers that they should avoid adjectives is like a fad diet — Atkins or South Beach — that rules out a whole class of foods. But it is true that some adjectives are empty calories, and storied is surely one of them. Like prestigious and legendary, two other adjectives that crop up in the work of unimaginative writers, it says merely, “I’m writing an important story about somebody you should have heard of.”

Of course, the first example is constructed almost completely from prefabricated material. Extraordinary outpouring of public emotion turns up whenever a crowd gathers, especially if they are outdoors to pay their last respects. And if this storied figure is also a patriarch, then he must be part of a dynasty.

It pretty much writes itself.

The other article — after revealing that Mr. Kennedy was a Democrat from Massachusetts — refers to his storied ability to eke out compromises. The phrasal verb to eke out, which originally meant to supplement by meager increments or to stretch out a small supply, has come to mean to accomplish with great difficulty, and no one has any business insisting on the older sense. But I thought that compromises were hammered out in the smithy of the Congress.

Sometimes the writer reaches for the wrong cliche. But eyeing, at least, is pure journalese.

11 comments:

  1. O. Henry's "Calloway's Code" (well worth reading, and quite short) shows that not much has changed in the last century.

    I read somewhere that in practice legendary now means basically 'dead', as illustrated by the phrase legend in his/her own time for someone who acquires the accolades normally granted only to those who have gone before us.

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  2. "Eyeing," to my mind, lives in the same category as "inking." In part, I think, because I still occasionally write with a fountain pen, when I hear a story about somebody "inking" a deal, I conjure a mental picture of spilled ink at the bottom of a contract.

    With "eyeing," I see large, single eyes glowing in the dark and floating over a stack of proposals.

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  3. And I'll bet if you go around The Sun newsroom and ask the young guns writing "content," they actually wouldn't know what the "story" is.

    "Ted Kennedy? He's from Massachussetts?"

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  4. Well, "eyeing" isn't journalese in GB, but part of normal speech; "eke out" still has its original meaning here (such that I simply couldn't understand what the writer was getting at in the quoted piece); and "storied", far from being a faddy adjective, hardly exists here unless there is an urn somewhere about. It's fine to be reminded how much we all live in our own local linguabubbles ...

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  5. i enjoyed the O. Henry story

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  6. Speaking of inappropriate cliches, a public radio show host today said the senator would be buried with RFK and JFK on "a grassy knoll."

    Not the image I think she intended.

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  7. A major difference between good and bad writing is that the former is done one word at a time while the latter is done one phrase at a time. When I am merely stitching phrases together, the writing is easy, and the results are bad. "In the beginning of another morning, singing a song on a hill far away" -- hey, that was a snap to write. Most popular fiction consists of one familiar phrase after another. Literature comes at you one word at a time, and often the word is unexpected. In a newspaper, one hardly ever is surprised by a word. If you have someone read a newspaper article to you and stop in the middle of a sentence, odds are you can predict the next word. Bad writing can be read while listening to the radio or TV, but good writing cannot. A thinking writer requires a thinking reader. Also a thinking editor. And so, as the evening wanes and my mind wanders, I take your leave.

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  8. A sign in a park near my house consists of two ideas pushed together: NO TRESPASSING and AFTER DARK. Aparently one is allowed to trespass if it's light, but how can one be allowed to trespass? If it's allowed, it's not trespassing. The writer wasn't thinking one word at a time.

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  9. To Jon: Wow (grassy knoll?). Really? Who said that? What galaxy did they grow up in?

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  10. Patricia the TerseAugust 30, 2009 at 12:29 AM

    There is a "no trespassing after dark" sign in a park here as well. As it is in the University section of the city, it is no surprise that no one has brought that to the city's attention.

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  11. It's just a terse version of "Entering or remaining after dark is trespassing." (My daughter got a ticket for this.)

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