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Isn't that special?

We published — actually set in type — a reference to “the prestigious Nobel Prizes.”

Perhaps there are readers who do not know that the Nobel Prizes carry prestige, or, even less likely, readers who have never heard of the Nobel Prizes, to whom the adjective “prestigious” would add meaning. Seems unlikely.

What we have instead is mere padding, adjectival noise. The only meaning that “prestigious” grants to this passage is an implicit message from the writer: “Lookee here, I’m writing about something really, really important.”

Adjectival clutter typically rises from such attempt to telegraph that sense of importance to the reader without actually demonstrating the importance. It violates the time-worn precept from writing instructors to show, not tell.

A recent article carried in its first two paragraphs references to a controversial measure being considered in the contentious legislative session. Controversial is one of those tell-not-show words that journalists use too frequently, though in this context the editor made a case that readers might not have known that the measure had been enveloped in controversy. Perhaps so, but piling on contentious in the subsequent sentence made no contribution. Is there anyone who looked at this newspaper during the 90 days of the legislative session who was unaware that it was particularly contentious?

Such buzzwords are an attempt to signal meaning to the reader by shorthand, the way that gritty has become a stock adjective to describe cities or neighborhoods that are (a) rundown, (b) dangerous or (c) frequented by people journalists do not commonly associate with. 

Efforts to root out adjectival noise are only intermittently successful. We have had some success on The Sun’s copy desk over the years in stamping out dramatic in news stories; if the circumstances described don’t look dramatic, no quantity of adjectives will make them so. We have also been able to scotch the impulse to use special to indicate something that may be merely somewhat out of the ordinary. We limit it to specific meanings, such as special education or special session. There has been remarkably little contention in-house over these dramatic and controversial decisions, and the readers do not seem to feel deprived. 

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:33 AM | | Comments (1)
        

Comments

"Special music." No church that mails news releases ever omits it, but I once had to invest hours in polite debates with well-meaning but determined men of the cloth on the point.

Nowadays, reading bloggers' calls for more "transparency" in newspapering, I wish I had digital recordings of those discussions to put online. Once those who listened got done banging their heads on the wall, they'd be careful of what they asked for.

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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