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Stop me if you've heard this one

Hack, the word for a drudge who will write for hire, typically an inept writer, derives from hackney, a horse that is available for hire by anyone, and therefore likely worn out and of little use. The related adjective hackneyed describes something used so frequently and indiscriminately as to have become trite.

If you are a reader of newspapers or magazines, or a listener of speeches and sermons, you have encountered many hackneyed openings. I don’t purport to have an exhaustive list, but here are a number of those deadly commonplaces that a writer of any pretensions to originality will shun.

The dictionary definition

Webster’s says … should immediately put you off. To begin with, there is no such thing as Webster’s. There are a number of dictionaries from different publishers that use Webster’s in their titles.

Any opening that you recognize from a sermon or letter to the editor should immediately strike you as useless.

King James English

Many writers who attempt a bogus Jacobean English get the grammar wrong. Take, for example, a headline, The taxman will certainly cometh. The suffix -eth is used only with third-person singular, present-tense verbs — not with plurals, not with first or second persons, not with future tenses. Similarly, the suffix –est -is used only with second-person singular, present-tense verbs. In addition to being wrong on the grammar, such writers are mistaken in imagining that dressing up a contemporary event in archaic clothes will look novel or interesting.

The official declaration

“It’s official,” followed by some statement, is staler than the Halloween candy in the back of the hall closet. Saying, “It’s official,” means that something long anticipated has come to pass — i.e., is not particularly newsy.

The lone word

Gonorrhea.

The one-word, one-paragraph lead is supposed to grab you by the lapels and seize your attention.

The second paragraph will get around to telling you what the article is about, often in an anticlimax.

The “that is” gambit

You open with a statement that points in one direction, then feint in to another, with a mechanical transition. Actress Geena Davis already has an Oscar. Now she’s shooting for the gold. Olympic gold, that is.

The “that is” is the giveaway that you are straining to link two things that really have no connection.

The interrogatory lead

Have you ever wondered how haggis is made?

No, and so I turn the page.

Posing a direct question to the reader leaves a broad opening for the reader to turn aside.

The “not alone” transition

Writing an anecdotal lead — in which one person’s experience turns out to be emblematic of the subject of the article — requires an eventual transition into the body of the story. That transition is the weak joint, the point at the reader’s interest may be lost. We have often sacrificed that interest with the “not alone” transition: X is a person in a hell of a mess. X is not alone.

The anecdotal lead has become such a commonplace piece of business in the trade that every reader recognizes the structure. An editor can excise the X is not alone transition every time without making any difference to the article apart from shortening it by four superfluous words.

The greeting

Another lame transition from the anecdotal lead to the body of the story: the description of some woeful situation, followed by Welcome to the world of. … This device should always be unwelcome. Similarly, the two-or-three-paragraph lead describing a person, followed by Meet John Doe, has also worn threadbare.

If you have ever resorted to these elderly measures, or been complicit in their publication, it is not too late to repent and resolve to sin no more.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:46 PM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

You made a grammatical error in your last sentence. "...it is not *to* late to repent..." You might want to fix that!

Great entry. In my own writing, even that simply for school, I do my best to avoid those kinds of cliches, but it can be hard. It takes a real brain and some real effort to avoid it.

Father Confessor:
I admit to a variation of the "lone word" opening. In cover letters for proposals, I often announce, in italics, the main concerns or attributes requested by the putative client. Then I continue by saying, hot-diggedy, we're just the folks to address those concerns. Hey! It's, um, marketing. What's my penance? Or is absolution withheld because I have not promised to desist?

Very interesting and well written. I wonder how you feel about the occasional use of a cliched expression as a kind of shorthand to keep the story moving, e.g. "called off the dogs," "sounded the alarm" or "went to the mat." As a writer, I am tempted to insert these kinds of phrases because they make the point so well. Your thoughts?

It's difficult, and probably impossible, to write without stock phrases. Some, like "kick the bucket," are idiomatic (though there may be contexts in which you would find it inappropriate). Expressions such as "called off the dogs" are among the wealth of metaphors ready to hand in the language.

It comes down to questions of taste and judgment -- judging when a particular expression is just too shopworn to suit your purpose. (That's why each writer should consult an editor to gauge what works and what doesn't.)

Two that I do my best to blow out of the water:

Most people don't know that ... I don't pick up my paper or click to a Web site to be told I'm an idiot. Just get about the job of telling me what I need to know.

Thanks to ... as in "Taxes will double thanks to a City Council vote ..." Trust me, I'm not thanking anyone. Save it for when it's appropriate: A family whose home burned has a new place to stay thanks to the generosity of neighbors.

Inappropriate use of archaic second- and third-person verb forms is a harmless bit of word-play. The writer may well be quite aware that the form is used incorrectly, but that's just part of the fun.

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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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