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Heavy-handed plodder

One suspects that the prevalence of formulaic epithets in Homeric poetry was a device to assist the bards in their memorization: rosy-fingered Dawn, the wine-dark sea, gray-eyed Athena and all that.

One suspects that the prevalence of formulaic epithets in daily journalism has less to do with memorization than the need to fill the quota of words quickly. Such constructions were common when I started in the business in the 1980s: Fugitive financier Robert Vesco appeared regularly in print, and Pope John Paul II was alternatively the white-robed pontiff.

The sturdy device persists, as we see every time we read about war-torn Lebanon or war-torn Iraq, in the latter of which one finds the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

One gets the white-robed pontiff and other clumsy circumlocutions to avoid repeating a term, such as the pope, monotonously. The rhetorical term for this particular trope is periphrasis or antonomasia, the substitution of a descriptive term for a proper name or a proper name for a quality associated with it. Admirable as the goal of avoiding monotony may be, reliance on stock phrases gets stale very quickly.

One defense of this technique is that it assists readers in identifying persons or places with which they may be unfamiliar. But mentioning the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in an article about violence in Kirkuk that makes no reference to the oil is pointless. And on what remote atoll do we imagine our readers have been stranded that they have not learned that Iraq is war-torn?

No, however much we want to vary the prose and inform the reader, there is no dodging the clear point that this kind of writing betrays hackwork, the construction of articles from prefabricated phrases. There is no disguising triteness from the reader.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:39 AM | | Comments (2)


"Hot-button issue" is the stock phrase that sets my teeth on edge. Who decides which issues are hot-button? What qualifications must an issue meet to be placed in that category? What exactly does "hot-button" even mean? Urgh.

I enjoy reading your blog!

I remember reading in the Washington Post "the eerily beautiful capital, Kigali" during the Rwandan genocide. They used that phrase in every article for months. Towards the end, it changed into "the still eerily beatiful..." It was maddening. Finally, towards the end of the genocide, the writer stopped using that phrase. I believe they even discussed stopping using that phrase in the article.

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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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