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/.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Don't do this again

All right, I’m just a copy editor — and a cashiered copy editor at that — so you may wonder where I come off with attitude about how real writers write. (Several reporters have in the past.) In part, it’s because I was a reader first, and as a reader I identified stale devices with which writers, journalists in particular, imagine that they bring freshness and imagination to their work.

For fuller discussion, you should look at a compilation of cliche leads that Dick Thien offered to the American Copy Editors Society and a similar analysis at Bob Baker’s Newsthinking.

For some that I myself find particularly irritating:


Webster’s defines ...

First off, there is no Webster’s, or rather, no one Webster’s. Merriam-Webster is only one of a number of publishers using that name in the title. Second, giving a dictionary definition of a term as a starting point is such a fixture of low-grade sermons that a first-year seminarian, not to say a professional journalist, ought to blush at being caught resorting to it.


It’s official

It’s official means that some piece of information has been confirmed — meaning that you are telling the reader something already widely known. Usually readers expect a story to tell them things they don’t already know.


The conventional wisdom

The conventional wisdom is also something that the reader has already heard. When a writer starts by saying what the conventional wisdom is, it’s usually to move to some fresh take on the situation. Maybe the writer could just start with that fresh take.


The pathetic fallacy

If I ever catch you writing that storm clouds couldn’t dampen the spirits of any person or group at an event, or in any other manner attributing emotion to meteorology, I’ll see to it that you are locked in a room listening to recordings of Wordsworth’s later poetry until you scream for mercy.


Christmas came early

Unless a holiday has some direct connection with the subject of the article, it’s as relevant as the weather. Particularly to be shunned are cheap and obvious efforts at irony: Just on the eve of Labor Day, Joe Sixpack got the word that his factory was closing and his job was gone.


The rhetorical question

Have you ever wondered where reporters get their ideas?

No I haven’t, and since I have no intention of proceeding to a second paragraph, I guess I never will.


The clumsy misdirection

Laura Snapdragon eats turtles by the dozen.

The chocolate, caramel and peanut candies, that is.


The that is serves to say, “Looky here: I made a play on words.”


Onomatopoeia

Foom! Foom! Foom!

That was the sound of the rockets as they were launched into the night sky to burst into sprays of color to celebrate America’s birthday.


It’s recommended practice to avoid sound effects in the rest of the story, too.


The Jacobean gambit

For the love of Fowler, please do not ever attempt to imitate the language of the Authorized Version of the Bible (popularly the King James). You are apt to get the grammar wrong (the –eth suffix being grammatically proper only the with singular third-person form of the verb), or you will cloak some mundane secular phenomenon in the language of religion, giving offense to the godly.


The outdated allusion

As Jimmy Durante used to say, everybody’s trying to get into the act.

The reader doesn’t know what “the act” is, and, unless you have confirmed that your audience is geriatric, the reader is probably clueless about the Great Durante, who climbed that golden staircase in 1980 and whose last appearances on television dated to the early 1970s.

It’s a good idea to write for readers who are alive today.


The disproportionate comparison

Though 1968 is best known for domestic turmoil and the war in Vietnam, it also has a local distinction. That year Baltimore County began trying to rewrite its regulations governing outdoor signs.

One of these things is not like the other. ...