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Speak English, please

The voice was puzzled. "What is nayf?"

"Nayf?" I asked.

"On the front page of this morning’s paper."

"Oh, you mean naif — nah-EEF — "it’s French. It’s the noun for a naïve person."

"Why is there a French word I’ve never seen before on the front page of my

paper?"

Good question.

Actually, it wasn’t the noun but the adjective, a reference to a piece of pottery made by a child as an "objet naif."

A newspaper, though it aims at a broad audience, nevertheless contains many levels of diction. The vocabulary and syntax found on the editorial page and op-ed page differ from what can be found in the sports section. A review by an art critic or music critic is likelier to contain specialized terms than a news story.

What appears on the front page of the paper, directed at the widest possible readership, should be less specialized. An article on baseball that runs on Page One should not require the reader to be a sports fan. An article about making films should not demand that the reader be a movie buff. This doesn’t mean that we should write condescendingly for the front page, but we ought to be comprehensible.

I suggested in a previous posting ("Italian Englished," Feb. 9) that journalists have enough trouble getting English right. Using foreign-language terms exposes us to three hazards:

  1. We can get them wrong, usually with inconsistencies in case, number or gender.
  2. Even if we’re right, we can look pretentious.
  3. We can baffle the reader whose attention we are trying to capture.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:37 PM | | Comments (3)
        

Comments

Circa (sic!) 1995, I used "semper fi" on a 1B centerpiece about Marines. In the back shop, our AME wanted to change the hed; asking, "Who will understand that?" Where do we draw the line?

"Naif" appears in standard English dictionaries as a variant of naive and can thus hardly be considered "baffling." People with limited vocabularies should consult a dictionary instead of expecting everyone else to dumb down their prose.

I once used the words "steel themselves" in a Rwanda headline. A reader wrote in to complain. Steel? What kind of word is that? Perhaps she thought that we'd misspelled, and then misused, "steal."

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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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