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Whenever The Sun runs an article or photo caption that mentions people sitting on stoops, I cringe. I know that I will soon be hearing from longtime readers of the paper complaining that Baltimore rowhouses have steps, not stoops, and that the writer who wrote stoops is betrayed as an outlander.

As reporters cycle through the chains that own so many American newspapers, sometimes staying no more than a couple of years in any one place, they lack the time (and inclination?) to familiarize themselves with the language and customs of their temporary cities. The credits with their bylines might as well read Not From Here.

But anyone who wants to achieve credibility with the readership ought to find out what the readers call their soft drinks — soda, pop, tonic — and their sandwiches — subs, grinders, po’ boys, hoagies.

Anyone who wants to render quotes accurately will need to develop an ear for the syntax of speakers in the area. In Pittsburgh and the German-heritage areas of Pennsylvania, for example, a speaker may say that the car needs washed.

Sensitivity to these little touches shows the reader that you have taken the time and trouble to get acquainted with them, that you are not some outsider indifferent to their customs. Or worse, that you harbor some degree of scorn for them.

And let us, please, forgo the use of locals (rhymes with yokels) to refer to residents of an area. It is inherently condescending. It telegraphs to the reader, "I’ve come to this sleepy little burg for a day to write about the quaint customs of these ho-hums, and I am going to get out of here as fast as I can."

Better drop sleepy from the adjectives describing small towns or rural areas while you’re at it. Unless you are some cosmopolitan familiar with the mores of New York, Paris, Rome and the other great cities, you probably didn’t come from anyplace more impressive yourself.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:25 AM | | Comments (5)
        

Comments

Hey John,
I've been meaning to comment every time I check out what you've been writing. I know for our publication (only daily in a two-county, rural area), our managing editor also dislikes us using "locals," but I think it occasionally sneaks into headlines, especially on the front page above the fold. But I think we try to save that for when we localize a national story and want potential readers to know that it's not just wire copy. Maybe we can do better.

Otherwise, I do agree. Even if someone has just blown into town with the intent on moving on quickly, better not to shout that in writing and headlines.

I had no idea "stoop" was a regionalism. Guess my husband (who's Italian) and I (born in New England) have been betraying ourselves as outlanders ever since we bought our house in Silver Spring, the front stairs of which we've always referred to as a stoop.

Wait, you're saying they're not "stoops" in Balmerian?

In New York we eat our hero sandwiches while sitting on our stoops drinking our sodas!

Back in Woostuh we ate grindiz out on the piazza while drinking tonic.

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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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