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Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

Nothing is harder to keep fresh than the language about something that happens every year. For several seasons now, The Sun’s copy desk has circulated in-house a memo on holiday cliches to eschew. The list below, compiled by Sun copy editors and colleagues in the American Copy Editors Society, was published in an earlier form on the Poynter Institute’s Web site,, under the title “Avoid holiday cliches.”

“’Tis the season”: Not in copy, not in headlines, not at all.

“’Twas the night before” anything: 'Twasing is no more defensible than ’tising. (And if you must refer to the Rev. Mr. Moore's poem, if indeed he wrote it, the proper title is “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”) 

“Jolly old elf”: Please, no. And if you must use Kriss Kringle, remember the double s.

Any “Christmas came early” construction.

“Yes, Virginia” allusions: No.

“Grinch steals”: When someone vandalizes holiday decorations, steals a child's toys from under the tree, or otherwise dampens holiday cheer, this construction may be almost irresistible. Resist it.

“Turkey and all the trimmings”: If you can't define trimmings without looking up the word, you shouldn't be using it.

“White stuff” for snow: We should have higher standards of usage than do television weather forecasters. Also avoid the tautologies favored by these types: winter season, weather conditions, winter weather conditions, snow event and snow precipitation. And the tautologies favored in advertising: free gift, extra bonus and extra added bonus.

Old Man Winter, Jack Frost and other moldy personifications can safely be omitted.

Pray do not ring out or ring in an old year, a new year, or anything else.

If the spirit of ecumenism and inclusion requires the inclusion of Hanukkah in to holiday articles, these points should be kept in mind. Hanukkah is a holiday more like Independence Day than Christmas, and it is only the coincidence of the calendar dates in a gentile culture that has caused the holiday to mimic Christian and secular elements. The holidays are coincidental; they are not twins.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:45 AM | | Comments (2)


I would beg that you remember that Hanukkah is a celebration of one of God's miracles for his Chosen People.

Christmas is a celebration of one of God's miracles, the virgin birth, for the Gentiles.

For that matter, "let them die and reduce the surplus population" is often quoted out of context -- if you ignore the tone, difficult as that is, it works out to a variant of "God helps those who help themselves."

The bit about Hanukkah reminds me of mat copy I read a year ago selling Christmas hams. In an admirable spirit of ecumenism, they also suggested them as Hanukkah hams.

To the commenter: there's a slight difference in the nature of the respective miracles. The holiday most analogous to Christmas in that sense is probably Passover, or Sukkot (which commemorates the giving of the Torah). Hanukkah doesn't celebrate an event as central to Judaism as I understand the birth of Jesus is to Christianity.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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