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Going native

One of the most insidious dangers about covering a specific area, or beat, is that over time the reporter begins to sound like the subject.

The crime reporter’s stories begin to read more and more like a police report, in which a victim of an accident is "ejected from the vehicle" instead of being thrown from the car. Men and women become "individuals." People do not go anywhere, but "proceed."

The business reporter starts writing about companies that are trying to "grow the business" or "grow profits." (Plant in spring; then fertilize and irrigate as needed.) Another presents quoted material about "internal synergies leveraged across the entire organization to expand product offerings," as if such arrant cant were intelligible.

And the writer covering a government agency begins to write like a bureaucrat. A small but telling mark of this tendency is to omit the definite article before the initials of an agency. We conventionally say that the FBI investigates people suspected of terrorist intentions or that the CIA monitors the movements of people suspected of espionage. (Acronyms, abbreviations that are pronounced as words rather than letters, such as NASA, do not take the direct article.)

But now it has become a fad to say that NSA intercepts telecommunications or FDA has approved a new drug or USDA is testing for mad cow disease. If you look at quoted statements by employees of these agencies, you will find them dropping the definite article, as if using it somehow limited the dignity of their department. Or perhaps they just mean to adopt a clipped, stripped-for-action tone. It is an annoying affectation, and one that reporters would do well not to imitate. Journalists are expected to report on people in business and government, not to mimic them.

Please note the exceptions. The definite article runs with the acronym when the acronym functions as a noun, not when it serves as an adjective. You would write NSA security procedures.

And there are abbreviations, such as those for the names of colleges and universities, that do not take the definite article. I live in dread that some copy editor will read this posting, convert it into a rule covering all possible circumstances, and start insisting that Morgan State University should be referred to on second reference as the MSU. Spare me.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:57 PM | | Comments (4)


One would HOPE you wouldn't need to be so particular in describing the appropriate venues for a direct article. Initials stand for something, yes? So would we say that a friend is employed as "a special agent for Federal Bureau of Investigation"? Or suggest that a high-school senior consider applying to "the Morgan State University"?

Print is solidified speech. If it doesn't make sense to say it, why would we write it?

Keeping or dropping the "the" seems to be a colloquism, and what your ear tells you to do varies from place to place.
Early in my editing career I had a knock-down, drag-out argument with a reporter who insisted that since people refer to "Congress" as "Congress," it's OK to refer to "council" without even capitalizing it. I ignored him, but he made me change it until he moved on.
You can imagine my amazement when I then met people from Washington who referred to "the Congress."
I wrote the reporter off as a hopeless chucklehead until I moved to Ohio, where he came from, and discovered that all the native-speaking newspeople drop "the" before "council," but not "commission" -- usually.
Contrarily, many Ohioans insist on THE Ohio State University, which sounds affected to my ear, considering that there are state universities in places like Cleveland and Bowling Green as well.
I don't think there's a rule, you just have to listen and decide -- at a newspaper, the boss would decide -- what sounds right.

greetings, John. as a former employee of yours (a By the Book B----), I durn near gnashed my teeth to the nubs with the multiple references to the "badly decomposed" body in the school chimney. No, no and no. A badly decomposed body is in great shape. It is similar to "badly frozen," which would be thawed! It is sufficient to say decomposed. I realize that police and others in officialdom use this contradictory term, but The Sun should not.
I checked my four dog-eared, gnawed-on, scribbled-across AP stylebooks (see By the Book reference above), and, while they contain no reference to badly decomposed, they should. As should The Sun's in-house stylebook (if it doesn't already).
John, I just began reading your blog and enjoy it, as I almost always did your communiques when I worked at The Sun. I hope all is well with you, yours. chrs, rgds, 73s. Ann

Hi, nice site, good work! Thank you!

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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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