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Gnats, swarms of gnats

Forget, for a moment, the major irritations of journalism, the search for auguries in shaky polling results, the stories about Tom Cruise, the speculations about Katie Couric’s gravitas, or lack of it. You can dodge those — the headlines will tip you off. It’s the multitude of irritating little lapses or excesses that accumulate and fatigue you, like grit in your shoe. They are everywhere, and they are of many kinds.

The pretentious


The poorly understood

We keep using the word burgeoning to describe development that is overwhelming the countryside like kudzu. But to burgeon means to sprout or put out buds. Yes, it indicates growth, but properly the early stages.

The flat-out wrong

President Bush, in his speech on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, said, "If we yield Iraq to men like bin Laden, our enemies will be emboldened. They will gain a new safe haven, and they will use Iraq's resources to fuel their extremist movement."

The annoying pleonasm safe haven has apparently rooted itself in public discourse, but it is nonsense. A haven by definition is a safe place. The expression is probably a mistake for safe harbor; anchorages can be secure or exposed. Safe haven has been repeated so often as to have become a kind of noise that does not lead people to associate the words with much in the way of meaning.

We also take note of a staff story explaining that a judicial decision will receive close scrutiny and another with a reference to an armed gunman.

The cliched

In The Sun in recent days you could have read about war-torn Lebanon, war-torn Darfur, war-torn Iraq, and even war-torn Europe (in a reference to the Marshall Plan). Prefabricated phrases, stock expressions and standing epithets multiply like zebra mussels in the Great Lakes.

Journalese and headlinese

If you are mulling anything other than wine, or decrying some development in public life, or eyeing some phenomenon, you live in that curious parallel universe that exists in the pages of newspapers. People there speak and write in ways that no one else does or ever would.

Pick your own

Surely there are further examples of the gnats that you vainly try to brush away from your face when you read the paper or watch a news broadcast. Care to share any of them?

Corrections and amplifications

A reader at a desk not far from mine saw the references to Italian pronunciation in the posting "You said it" and pointed out that Guido is not the Italian form of William. That's Guglielmo. Guido is the Italian equivalent of the English Guy.

A colleague from the American Copy Editors Society wrote to point out that in the same posting my errant hand neglected to put the second t in Dashiell Hammett’s surname.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:29 PM | | Comments (3)


The False Range

"Everything from spinach to arugula" And just what is included in that "everything"? Motor oil? Ivory soap? Flowerpots? Cruise missiles?
Several times a week I run into this construction; only rarely does it refer to an actual range of items.

Would like to add a few other irritating expressions that routinely make it. One is death toll. It is so ridden with cliche it has lost its power in conveying the number of dead. It makes the dead sound like just another statistic of the tragedy.

Also, the confusion that most publications have in the usage of casualties versus fatalities. Often the two are used interchangeably when the former term denotes the injured as well.

Two of the gnats that irritate me the most come from broadcast meteorologists, and I think you may have mentioned them in a post a year or so ago: "white stuff" for snow and "precip" for precipitation, when they don't want to commit to exactly what sort of stuff might be falling on us.

More irritating to me, however, is a usage that has become more prevalent in the past five years is the blurring of America and the United States. While I acknowledge that we have historically taken over the term American to refer to our culture, I think we should still respect that America is a continent, of which Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil, and Canada are a part, while our country is the United States. I have no hope that the politicians would recognize the distinction; I do wish that journalists would take a stab at it, even though they might not go so far as a Canadian e-mail acquaintance, who suggested we should be referred to as "USians."

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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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