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The portentous tone

One of the great hazards of journalism is the temptation to inflate the importance of some mundane event or circumstance, either to impress the reader or to bolster the writer’s sense of self-importance. The form of air pumped up in these operations is typically an adjective or stock phrase.

Dramatic, for example, is a wasted adjective against which I have inveighed for years. If the circumstances are genuinely dramatic, they require no commentary; if they are not, no accumulation of adjectival clutter will make them so. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by a gunman as he rode in an open car through downtown Dallas would not benefit from being written as In a dramatic midday shooting, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in n open car through downtown Dallas.

I was reminded of this unfortunate tendency by seeing in The Sun last week a reference to pre-dawn darkness. Are our readers such simpletons that they have to be told that it is dark before dawn? Or is it that pre-dawn darkness is darker than other darkness? There is always something sinister or disturbing about the pre-dawn darkness; that’s when police raids take place, or people lie asleep, unaware that a tornado is bearing down on them.

Portentous derives from portent, a sign of some impending calamity or momentous event. The adjective originally meant ominous, presaging some disaster. By association with pretentious, it has taken on the sense of pompous, self-important.

Dramatic and pre-dawn darkness are merely a couple of examples. I would be obliged if you, the hardy band of readers of this blog, would submit your own nominations of irritating journalistic inflation and excess.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:56 PM | | Comments (11)


"Blue-ribbon" panel strikes me as pompous, if not ominous.
I imagine self-important judges at livestock fairs or AKC shows as I delete it.
Maybe if someone could explain what the term means ...

Going to have to take issue with the picking on of the pre-dawn darkness. If someone starts his or her day in the pre-dawn darkness, it says to the reader -- hey! It's not even dawn! It's still dark, dude, and this person's already at it! Crazy! Or, if a murder takes place in the pre-dawn darkness, it says -- oooooh, light is coming soon and the bastard still did it! Do you have a problem with the darkness of night? Under the cloak of night's darkness (ok, I kind of have a problem with that one)? I think for a little mood setting, it's just fine. It's not like we're talking free gift or partially destroyed here.

Quote: "Or is it that pre-dawn darkness is darker than other darkness?"

I believe it is well documented that "it" is always darkest before the dawn. Sorry, couldn't resist.

I don't have a problem with "pre-dawn darkness"; there is something special about those wee hours. At least, the writer did not say "in the prematutinal gloom"!

I usually side with Mr. McIntyre, but in this case I opt to disagree. Pre-dawn darkness is different from regular darkness.

And, "pre-dawn" does not automatically mean "darkness".

"Pre-dawn darkness" is different from "Pre-dawn light" in terms of what effect the writer is trying to achieve.

"It was pre-dawn dark" vs. "It was dark" conjures up two vastly different shades of darkness.

Also, simply saying "It took place pre-dawn" only tells us when. Saying "It took place in the pre-dawn darkness" makes it sound ominous.

"It took place in the pre-dawn light" gives it that sense of things just getting started.

I think the real issue is with the word "pre-dawn" itself. Surely there must be a better word or phrase, no?

Same thing with "post-dusk darkness" (which, until now, is a phrase I doubt I had ever heard). Perhaps "pre-dawn darkness" is most apt when attempting to describe a time of day, as opposed to a measure of luminance.

and, stealing from last month's "Style & Substance," I've started striking "quietly announced" or "quietly changed," when used to mean "nobody sent out a press release."

"Historic" is much like "dramatic." By using it, a writer insists that something is historic. Isn't it pompous to suggest that a recent event will eventually be deemed historic? And if you're talking about the Constitutional Convention, I don't need to be reminded that this was historic. (Let's save the historic-vs.-historical discussion for another time.)

"Historic" and "dramatic" are examples of how news writing has become like sports writing. Too bad the opposite didn't happen.

"either to impress the reader or to bolster the writer’s sense of self-importance"

Sometimes it's to provide any justification for putting it in the newspaper.

I have an issue with calling Osama and his coterie "masterminds" of the Sept. 11 attacks. I imagine him sitting in a dark cave somewhere high-fiving his aides for getting such a positive title. I always yank it out and replace it with planners. Not as strong, yes, but less loaded.

Every week I come across at least one instance of "dramatic" in the scientific research reports I edit. Sometimes I have to gently explain to authors that this is a theater-related term not properly applicable to some process happening on a laboratory bench. Sometimes I change to "marked" or even "drastic" if appropriate, but often no word at all is best.

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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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