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Clarity vs accuracy


These are a few thoughts (some of them taken from The Economist’s style guide and those of other respected newspapers) for journalists writing and editing copy in English.

Image by Dave King and released under Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Dave King and released under Creative Commons

Getting the language right:

Clarity equals understanding. If we write clearly, our readers will understand. We will always be accurate, of course, but we will always be clear with it. This takes a great deal of effort, but we will write in language that our readers understand.

It is important not to confuse the use of precise technical, engineering or medical terms, for instance, with accuracy when their use might baffle most readers. Translating arcane or specialist terms faithfully into broader, understandable English maintains accuracy and provides clarity.

Where a specific but little-known term is essential, perhaps in a direct quote that cannot be put into indirect speech, one should take the time to explain what it means.

Basic rules for writers:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

The six points above are from Politics and the English Language, George Orwell, 1946

These six points, including the wry humour of the last, are a good foundation for any writing. The broader subject of the essay is especially relevant to writing news.

Figures of speech:

Clichés

Avoid clichéd and hackneyed expressions.

Some examples are - toe the line, tighten the belt, go the last mile, eleventh-hour reprieve, race against time (in any case an absurdity, it would be a race against the clock), bedside vigil, every parent's worst nightmare, ticking time bomb, road to recovery - but many more exist everywhere in print every day.

Companies do not “see” profits rise, countries do not see droughts or floods, winter will not see snow, an old man will not see next year, even if he is still alive. Similarly, courts do not hear, they are told.

Short words

“Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all.” - Winston Churchill

Short words are easier to spell and to understand than long words. This is particularly important because it is arrogant to assume that English is the first language of every reader. An Anglo-Saxon word may sound plain, but longer forms, probably with Latin roots, often add pretension rather than nuance.

So prefer buy to purchase, let to permit or allow, take part to participate, show to demonstrate, use to utilise, about to approximately, make to manufacture and so on. The word absquatulate, to mean leave, was invented as a humorous construct in the 19th Century and it illustrates the point well.

Also remember that long words are often euphemisms. A disadvantaged person or an underdeveloped region might be better described as poor, as might a man who is impecunious.

Avoid clichéd and hackneyed expressions

Cut it out:

Adjectives and adverbs

Adjectives and adverbs should describe or modify to add information or refine meaning. They are mostly redundant when used for emphasis, and mawkish or demeaning when used to imply emotion. Grieving relatives are relatives; if among the bereaved you find someone joyous, that person will probably provide the most newsworthy quote.

If a child dies in a bus crash it is gratuitous to smear words such as tragic all over the copy. If a population is wiped out by genocide, let the cold figures convey scale, not your adjectives.

Avoid using the word ironic. Similarly, controversial.

A heavily pregnant woman is pregnant. A leading, highly regarded, influential politician, cleric or writer is probably just a politician, cleric or writer. A key measure is a measure. A senior adviser is an adviser.

Words such as very, major, vital and crucial are almost always redundant.

A safe haven is a haven. Most probably and most especially are probably and especially. “Due to the fact that” and “in spite of the fact that” mean because and although.

A luxury home located in the suburbs is a house in the suburbs.

Adjectives and adverbs are mostly redundant when used for emphasis

What not to cut out:

That

Be careful when removing the word that. Its absence often misleads or confuses a reader for part of a sentence. For instance:

"The construction engineer felt the steel cable, which was 200ft above the gorge, was too slender to support the cable car.”

Only at the end of that sentence do we realise that the construction engineer is expressing a technical opinion, not performing a high-wire act.

Told, suggested, alleged, indicated, insisted, believed, suggested, felt etc all need the word that. Only said can safely do without it.

Be careful also with the position of modifiers. There is a huge difference between saying someone only drinks in the evening, and saying that they drink only in the evening.

Think twice before removing the word that

Be active:

English works best when it follows its simplest grammatical construction, which is subject, verb, object. “I killed him” is more vivid and direct than “he was killed by me”.

But beware changing “Janet and John were divorced” to “John divorced Janet” unless you know that to have been the case legally. Similarly, beware introducing suggestions of blame, initiative or responsibility: there is a difference between saying “I slept with your wife” and saying “your wife slept with me”.

Jargon and journalese:

According to Collins, jargon is, firstly, "specialised language concerned with a particular subject, culture or profession" and, second, "language characterised by pretentious syntax, vocabulary or meaning".

An audience is broad, so any jargon in the first sense must be translated into terms that all readers can understand. Jargon in the second sense is just bad writing. Collins's third and fourth meanings are "gibberish" and "another word for pidgin".

Much journalese may be blamed on tabloid newspapers, especially their subs. Headlines across short measures have led to overuse of words such as bid, spark, move, hit, blow, top, chief, crisis, drama etc. That language has migrated from headlines to body copy. It is ugly and it lacks precision.

Be temperate in language, especially in headlines. Keep a sense of proportion and recognise that storms and fury are often merely disagreements. This gives writing balance and maturity. The word slam, to mean criticised, should be banned.

Target

The word target, in the sense of aimed at or directed at, is overused. Say attacked, bombed, shot at or blown up if that is the case. The word target is best used as a noun. Targeted used to mean carrying a shield, from the Old French targette, meaning little shield. If you must use target as a verb, do so rarely.

Impact

Do not use impact as a verb, as in the war impacted the economy. The war affected the economy, or better still destroyed or harmed it. Things have an effect on something or are affected by something, or effect some change or other. Things can also have an impact on something, but in all cases it is better to say that they improved matters or made them worse. Impacted means, of a tooth, unable to erupt and, of a fracture, having the broken ends wedged together.

Warn

To warn is a transitive verb and must take an object. The construction “gave warning that” is grammatically acceptable but clumsy and contrived. There is nothing wrong with the word said in nearly all cases. Similarly, avoid cautioned. If you use the word claimed when attributing a quote or some reported speech to someone, bear in mind that it carries the suggestion that the person is not to be believed. Again, said is the straight option.

Labels

Think before using words such as warlord, hardman, strongman, mandarin, guru, supremo, mastermind - and then use another.

Wars are bloody by default, bombings kill people rather than create carnage, if a rocket hits a car we should be surprised not to find twisted and mangled wreckage. Those killed might occasionally be called victims, but never innocent; they are better off as the dead.

People have Aids or cancer, or are cancer or Aids patients. They are never victims, neither do they suffer from their disease. Cancer patients who recover have not won cancer battles.

A remote mountain village is a village in the mountains, which do not need to be called rugged. Not all villages are picturesque, neither are they sleepy. If a meadow were not lush, it would be a field. Hills need not roll, nor suburbs sprawl. An Englishman's home might be his castle, but his house is never palatial - even if he would like to live in a palace.

Awards ceremonies do not have to glitter. Famous implies fame, so give a person's name and what they do - if the reader has heard of them then the label is unnecessary. If the reader has not, it is inaccurate.

Respect

If we call someone respected, tell the reader by whom that person is respected. If we call someone defiant, say who or what is being defied.

If we are writing about nanotechnology, gene therapy, cell computing, transgenic breeding, missions to Mars and so forth, the label high-technology, or worse, high-tech, is pointless.

Be temperate in language and keep a sense of proportion

English vs American:

Note: This part is for journalists working for media organisations that use UK English

Avoid American phrases such as "meet with" or "consult with". In English, we meet people or consult them, there is no need for a with. Also, the phrase "will likely", should be "will probably" or "is likely to".

We play down, not downplay, park in car parks, not parking lots, buy aspirin from pharmacies or chemists, not drugstores, and put our shopping in the boot, not trunk, and to check the oil we lift bonnets, not hoods. We do not go downtown, but to the city or town centre. Home town is two words.

Ex-servicemen are not necessarily veterans and in English we bring up our children and raise our livestock. Gunned down means shot.

One may contest a ruling, but must protest against or appeal against one.

We have lawyers or solicitors, not attorneys. The word lawmaker to mean an elected politician conjures up pictures either of Judge Dredd or New Age nonsense. Use politician, senator, congressman or congresswoman, member of parliament or MP, whichever is appropriate.

A period of time can be from Monday to or until Friday, or from January to or until June, but never Monday through Friday or January through June.

Forthcoming, not upcoming, and prefer before to ahead of.

Facts vs false impressions:

Journalism vs PR

A journalist’s job is to report news, not promote governments or businesses. It is often disingenuous to say that, while in power, political party X reduced unemployment. It is more accurate to say that unemployment fell during party X’s time in power. Similarly with crime, health, inflation and other broad statistics.

Business

When a global supermarket chain says that it is investing $50 million to open a new store and create 300 jobs, it is actually speculating with the money and employing 300 people. Remember that in doing so it may well put scores of smaller shops out of business within 10 miles of its store and more people out of work than it is to employ.

International trade

Similarly, a multinational company setting up in a country with cheap labour is not investing in that region and its people. It is more likely to be receiving government grants or other incentives to relocate, and closing factories elsewhere where wages are higher and existing incentives have run their term. In a few years, it will probably move again for similar reasons.

Forced to

Beware of the phrase “was forced to”. If my car breaks down, I am not forced to walk anywhere. If I am the heir to a throne, I am not forced to divorce my wife because she cannot bear me a son. If a politician changes tack because it is politically expedient to do so, it does not mean that he was in any way forced.

The expression is dangerous because it allows people or organisations to externalise responsibility. A company that sacks a quarter of its workforce so that it can maintain a dividend was not forced to do it, it chose from many options - it is just that a listed company would never countenance any other.

Going forward

Do not use the expression going forward, it means in future or from now (and in a more formal age, henceforth). It is used in company reports and by government spin doctors to give a sense of action.

Community

The word community is becoming especially misused. The international community is a term bandied about, usually by Western governments, to give the impression that their enemy of the day is completely isolated.

Gang up

Rarely does the whole world gang up on one country. All too often the West gangs up on other countries and/or cultures and uses the phrase international community to gloss over the cracks; it also suggests that the dissenters are of no importance.

Do not let US or Western hegemonic interests claim to speak for the world when they do not - the word community in a political sense implies agreement. Use some, other or many countries instead - if possible say which countries or interest bloc.

Similarly, ask yourself what the Muslim community means, or the Christian, Jewish, gay, business communities etc. Be specific.

Peace process

Another weasel expression in vogue is peace process. Ask yourself whether in a particular case there is any process; consider using talks or negotiations - or stress the lack thereof.

Regime labels

Do not label a country's government a regime, or leftist regime, just because all Western media seem to have bought into the message emanating from the White House. A few years ago, would you have referred to the right-wing, fundamental Christian Bush regime, rather than George Bush’s administration?

Intros and summaries:

Keep them succinct - there will be plenty of room for detailed attribution and expansion on the whys and wherefores in subsequent paragraphs - and as active and current as possible.

So one would change this wire intro:

Opec oil producers expect to keep output close to the limit when they meet Wednesday to bring prices within the comfort zone for consumers and fill supply gaps in Nigeria and Iraq. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries' policy committee has said it will advise ministers to stick with today's 28 million barrels per day ceiling despite forecasts for lower demand in spring.

To this:

Opec expects to maintain high oil output to avoid large price increases at the pumps and to make up for shortfalls in Nigeria and Iraq. The cartel of oil-exporting countries meets on Wednesday and its policy committee has said that it will advise maintaining output at 28 million barrels a day, which is close to the maximum, despite a forecast fall in demand in spring.

Or this wire intro:

The bodies of 18 men were found bound and blindfolded in a minibus in west Baghdad late on Tuesday, an Interior Ministry spokesman said on Wednesday. It was unclear how the men died. Earlier reports said the vehicle was a pick-up truck but the ministry said it was a minibus.

To this:

The bodies of 18 men have been found bound and blindfolded in a minibus in west Baghdad. It was unclear how the men died, but the interior ministry said that the bodies were found on Tuesday night. Earlier reports had said the vehicle was a pick-up truck, but a ministry spokesman said on Wednesday that it was a minibus.

Dates

Pin down the dates of events after the first paragraph, unless the date is a key point of the news. But make sure that the day is put in the right place, which is usually as far back in the sentence as possible, or the sentence will sound Germanic.

Headlines

Also make sure that the more interesting aspects of an intro come before the humdrum. So the US president would not have been in a car with the Indian prime minister on a visit to Mumbai when a bomb exploded in a building 20 metres away. A bomb would have exploded 20 metres from the US president and Indian prime minister in Mumbai.

That one was visiting the other and that they were in a car should be explained later.

Question marks

Try to avoid using question marks in headlines; journalists are supposed to provide answers, not speculation. Also avoid them in cross-heads.

Building blocks of a report and ordering copy:

What, why, when, how, where and who are the cornerstones of every story. The why may well be the thrust of a report, but do not neglect the others.

Angle

Choose your angle. In a report about a car crash, the news might be who was driving, how many crashes they have had previously, who the passengers were, where the car or cars were, the make or model of vehicles involved, how many people were killed or even how long it took an ambulance to arrive.

Significant facts may well be buried many paragraphs down in notes or raw copy, a journalist’s job is to find the best angle and write or reorder accordingly.

Letting the copy breathe:

Because journalists often rely on wire copy for many stories, one must guard against the breathless adjectival strings inherent in Reuterspeak.

This is a typical sample of wire copy written in the month of December:

A federal court in Richmond, Virginia delayed on November 30 Padilla's transfer to a Miami, Florida prison demanding the government explain why it no longer viewed Padilla as an "enemy combatant".

It would be better rendered:

Last month, a federal court delayed Padilla’s transfer to a prison in Miami, Florida. The court, in Richmond, Virginia, called on the government to explain why it no longer viewed him as an “enemy combatant”.

We should also avoid lazy constructs that give places ownership of something. London’s West End, for instance, should be the West End of London, and New York’s Bronx should be the Bronx in New York or the Bronx, New York. The general idea also applies to a Paris apartment (an apartment in Paris), a Mumbai lawyer (a lawyer in Mumbai) and so on.

Guard against the breathless adjectival strings of words

Please feel free to add any of your own tips in the comment box below.

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