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Monday, October 11, 2010
Words & Language Toolbox

Words for wordsmiths

By Paula LaRocque

When I taught j-school, a fresh semester also meant creating a fresh syllabus and lectures and lab exercises. To do that, I’d set aside several hours a day to study the writing in the various media. From that study, I’d draw actual examples — examples that were specific and concrete, reflected practice rather than theory and applied readily to what the students might see and imitate.

The interesting thing was that a specific problem was seldom isolated to one medium — if you saw the error once, you were apt to see it a dozen times. Journalese and the habits of hackery are fast-spreading. So are mistakes. Let one reporter write “an historic” or “irregardless” or “snuck”; let one reporter misspell “just deserts” or “barbecue” or “chaise longue,” and suddenly the error is all over the place.

When I first saw the phrasing “one of the only” (an illiterate swap for “one of the few”), I marveled that a professional writer could have written such a thing. But within days, I saw the expression in the media several times. Curious, I conducted a library search and found in one metro daily more than 40 instances of “one of the only” in its news columns — all within the previous month.

Below is a potpourri of errors gleaned from a recent media watch. Again, I noticed clusters of the same or similar errors across the media. The same day I saw three “sunk” errors (the boat sunk, the market sunk) in the local newspaper, I also saw the error in the latest novel of a fine Swedish writer — surprising because translators are usually competent grammarians.

• They got out of the car and lifted out the walker. It sunk in the snow.

It sinks. It sank. It has sunk. It will have sunk.

• He says he sometimes misses not having anyone to talk to.

• I miss not going to the cabin in the summer.

• After retirement, she said she missed not seeing the students.

What’s going on here? By virtue of that word “not,” these reporters are writing or saying the opposite of what they intend. The first guy misses having someone to talk to; he doesn’t miss not having someone to talk to, which would mean he has lots of folks to talk to and is tired of it. Likewise, the second guy misses going to the cabin, and the retired teacher misses seeing her students.

The retired teacher example also presents a common (and gaining ground) punctuation error: failure to place a comma both before and after buried attribution. Forget one of those elegant little squiggles, and meaning flies away. For example, without a comma after “she said,” the teacher retired and then said something (after retirement, she said she ...). The sentence means, however, that she is now saying something about her past retirement and its effect on her.

• When he got to the top of the stairs, he said he heard glass breaking.

Here’s that missing comma in action again. So this guy went to the top of the stairs and remarked, “I hear glass breaking”? That’s not the sentence’s intent.

• Andrews says he is one of those guys who tries to account for every dime.

Tries should be try. The verb agrees with “guys who,” not “one.”

• She says she has free reign as creative director.

The expression is free rein, which refers to giving a horse his head.

• Everyone on his list was someone who had achieved notoriety — for good reason or bad.

Notoriety is not an achievement — the word is negative and pejorative and should not be confused with simply being of note or famous or celebrated. This writer further underlines his confusion by adding “for good reason or bad.” One doesn’t become “notorious” by being good. Here are some synonyms for “notoriety”: disrepute, disgrace, infamy, dishonor, shame, discredit, unsavory reputation, bad name, ill repute, scandal, ignominy, humiliation. Notorietyis a valuable word that has been cheapened through misuse — largely in the media and largely in sportswriting — but careful wordsmiths observe its distinctions.

• He dressed as quickly as he could, fumbling as if he was drunk.

Fumbling as if he were drunk. Errors in the subjunctive are everywhere. Use were, not was, in “if” clauses that are contrary to fact (he is not drunk), or in structures expressing desire or supposition: I wish I were going; if it were up to me.

• Some, however, find it darn right destructive.

A case of mishearing, doubtless, but it’s surprising it got past the editors. The writer means “downright destructive.”

What’s the lesson of all this? If you’re a wordsmith, be careful with words. Or at least be careful whom you copy!

Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing,” “On Words” and “Championship Writing.” Her first novel, a mystery titled “Chalk Line,” will be published by Marion Street Press in 2011. E-mail: plarocque@sbcglobal.net. Website: www.paulalarocque.com

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