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Write like people, not like newspapers

One of the recurring annoyances in Associated Press style is its comfort with non-conversational English. Why the AP is comfortable with writing that sounds unlike the way any speaker of English (at least any non-journalist speaker of English) speaks or writes continues to baffle me.

One example: Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. I don’t know anyone who would say or write Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Democrat, Maryland, said … or worse, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, dee, em-dee, said… . Most people would write Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat.

The abbreviations are handy and perfectly acceptable in charts, but charts are not sentences. Written sentences follow the patterns, conventions, and rhythms of spoken language.* That the Associated Press, and the publications that slavishly follow its style, continue to embrace a newspaperese that is increasingly alien to the speech of readers, and unlike the kind of writing they prefer to read, may help to explain why readers have turned elsewhere.

 

*I will stipulate that there are documents, medical, scientific, technical, and legal, that are not intended to sound like the productions of human beings.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:53 AM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

I do like the idea of not writing in newspaperese--there are lots of constructions that are unnatural. But in the cited example, when I read "Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md,..." my brain glosses over the "D-Md" but acknowledges the affiliation. It's a succinct way of letting readers know her party and state without using up space. Spelling it out makes it clunkier.

I don't mind "Sen.," just as I don't mind "Dr.," "Mr.," and other title abbreviations. I agree, however, that "D-Md." is clunky. If it were put in parentheses, I might tolerate it, but it still looks like alphabet soup to me. I'd rather see it written out.

[T]here are documents, medical, scientific, technical, and legal, that are not intended to sound like the productions of human beings.

Even though I edit two types of these documents--medical and scientific--I have to agree with you, Mr. McIntyre. And I was induced by your statement to truly laugh out loud, for which I heartily thank you.

Not to mention the words and phrases that occur only in the media. Prices always skyrocket, and hit us in the pocketbook. A man brandishes a rifle (which is always high-powered), and shots ring out. Flann O'Brien noticed this long ago, but it's worse lately.

Another phrase that only occurs in the media: buses always plunge (off a cliff, down a ravine, into a river, etc.)

May I add to the list of gripes, that in newspapers people always wed instead of marrying, contracts are inked not signed, conspiracies are outed rather than exposed... Grrr.

@ Jim Sweeney: I, too, have been bothered by plunging busses. To me, "plunge" has an element of volition which a bus would not possess. I'd prefer a nice Python-esque "plummet."

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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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