Clean up your copy for the holidays

December 16, 2013 01:30

By Christopher Cruise, RTDNA Contributor

Ahhhh, ‘tis the season for “Tis the Season,” and the Saturday edition of NBC Nightly News got the bandwagon rolling the weekend before Thanksgiving this year, with anchor Lester Holt uttering the wretched phrase. Viewers had the pleasure of seeing it, too, when it appeared on-screen. Did a producer think this was clever, or original? I can’t see how or why. Why didn’t Mr. Holt excise it from the script? Does he not have some control over what he says? I recall a newspaper editor a few years ago sending out a memo to reporters in late October banning the use of the term; I’d like to see all editors issue such a memo to their producers and reporters every year.
 
Perhaps you’d like to make an early New Year’s resolution:  “I will not put ‘tis the season’ anywhere in my copy or on my screen.” The phrase is overused, not even slightly clever, makes many in your audience cringe, and is without meaning; why would you want to put something with those attributes in your copy?
 
I’ve already heard “the white stuff” from a weather forecaster this season, and December isn’t even here! Is there some law against saying “snow” twice? As Abe Rosenberg of Newswriting.com notes “If there were, the song would go, ‘Let it Snow, Let it White Stuff...’ you get the idea.” (Check out Abe’s “Groaners,” which are posted on his website; in fact, email them to yourself and to your fellow news writers, and print them out and post them everywhere. Give demerits for every time one of the groaners appears in copy.)
 
Speaking of weather forecasts, since when, Bangor (Maine) Daily News have storms been “forecasted.” I’m not a grammar expert, but I don’t see the need for such usage. Isn’t that as bad as “broadcasted?" Forecast means the same thing and uses fewer syllables, and since it refers to a future event, rather than "has been forecasted," the shorter "is forecast" should suffice.
 
On a recent 20/20 report on the video game Grand Theft Auto we were told the game “made a billion dollars.” What does that mean? “Made” implies net, but the billion dollars refers to gross sales. So why not just say that the company sold a billion dollars worth of the games? And please don’t say “racked up sales of…”
 
I heard the word “exacerbating” used on Nightline in late November. I love this word, but many people don’t know what it means, so use “worsen.”
 
“Evangelists for…” is another construction I heard on Nightline in late November. I love this word, too, but I’m not sure it’s appropriate for use in broadcast news writing. It has certainly evolved from a purely religion-affiliated word, but not everyone has adopted this secondary usage and not everyone has accepted the secondary usage. This is not a call on my part to be cautious and boring when writing broadcast news; I am simply saying that we shouldn’t get too far ahead of our audience. And for those of you just itching to accuse me of presuming our audience is composed of (not comprised of) idiots, that is not what I am doing here, so please save your firepower.  
 
Let’s get “the American heartland” out of our copy. It is amorphous, condescending, vague and darn near insulting. It is inevitably used by a news writer in New York City to refer to anyplace west of Hartford or by a news anchor giddy at the thought they are connecting with people who actually do something. So just name the state. People in Iowa or Kentucky aren’t any better than people in New York and don’t have claim to a higher moral code or stronger ethics. They aren’t better Americans because they don’t live on the coasts; they shouldn’t be held up as models of probity nor should they be condescended to. 
 
Soon in this space I will deal with some of the most cringe-inducing phrases, including:  “comprised of,” “begs the question,” “very unique,” and “revert back.” I’ll also be writing about “sparks,” “in the lead-up to,” “amid,” and “drug bust,” along with “up close and personal.” And I’ll take on interviewers who ask leading questions like “Did you ever think…,” “How scared were you…?,” “How incredible was that?,” and “Did you ever imagine…?” Those, my friends, are not questions, and do not belong in a reporter’s repertoire. 
 
Until next time, America.
 
Oh, good grief.

Christopher Cruise is a reporter at the Voice of America's Learning English branch in Washington, DC. His views are his own.