Words Journalists Use That People Never Say

Confession time: I used all these hackneyed words and phrases during my nearly 20 years as a news reporter and editor.

But that doesn’t make it OK. Like many journalists, I often got lazy with words. I took the easy way out. I didn’t think. I hedged.

Here are some obnoxious examples of journalese … all from the Star Tribune. I don’t mean to single out the Strib. It’s just local and handy. I could’ve picked on any of my former employers — Minnesota Public Radio, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the New York Daily News or the Dallas Morning News — or just about any other media outlet. They’re all butchers.

As a gag, I sometimes use throwaway journalism jargon with my kids. To illustrate how absurd these words sound in real life, I’m listing actual examples from the Star Tribune, followed by how Journo Dad might sound around the house.

Largely
Strib: “Construction activity last year was slightly better in 2011 than 2010, largely because of an increase in apartment construction.”

Journo Dad: “I’m largely done with fixing dinner.”

Critics contend
Strib: “Critics contend that young, developing businesses and smaller websites could be saddled with expensive litigation costs.”

Journo Dad: “Critics contend that you kids don’t hop into the tub when you’re supposed to.”

Altercation
Strib: “Police arrested a 22-year-old St. Paul man Sunday in connection with the death of another man, apparently after an altercation.”

Journo Dad: “I don’t want you kids getting into an altercation over who goes first.”

Alex with newspaper

My daughter Alex learning bad writing habits.

Fingered
Strib: “His former campaign manager David FitzSimmons, whom Brodkorb also fingered with blame, said Brodkorb can have his own opinion but that he has no position in the party now.”

Journo Dad: “So, you’ve been fingered with eating a cookie before dinner.”

Blaze
Strib: “The blaze is believed to have started in the living room of one of the lower-level apartments.”

Journo Dad: “Heckuva a blaze I built there, eh?”

White stuff
Strib: “For the rest of us, it’s only a matter of time until the white stuff flies.”

Journo Dad: “Let’s go out and play in the white stuff”

Probe
Strib: “A high-ranking Minneapolis police officer who was caught up in an internal corruption probe has filed a lawsuit against the department.”

Journo Dad: “Time to launch a probe into that missing Halloween candy.”

Express concerns
Strib: “Jensen was one of about 50 Stillwater neighborhood residents who packed City Hall Monday night to express concerns about the proposed expansion.”

Journo Dad: “I’m expressing concerns that it’s past your bedtime.”

***************************

It doesn’t have to be this way. With a bit of thought — a few seconds, say — writers can avoid most of these words and phrases. As an adjunct instructor at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication, I compiled a list of pet-peeve words for an introductory reporting class.

Here’s the list, followed by easy and understandable alternatives.

fled on foot = ran away
high rate of speed = speeding
physical altercation = fight
verbal altercation = argument
reduce expenditures = cut costs
terminate employment = fire
reduction in service = layoff
blunt force trauma = injury
discharged the weapon = shot
transport the victim = take him/her
lower extremities = legs
officers observed = police saw
at this point in time = now
express concerns = complain
incendiary device = bomb
obtain information = ask or interview
deceased = dead
sexual relations = sex
roadway = road
fail to negotiate a curve = missed a curve
determine a course of action = consider options
vehicle = car or truck
citizen = person
individual = man or woman
commence = begin
emergency personnel = police, firefighters
utilize = use
complainant = victim
fatally injured = killed
motorist = driver
juvenile male/female = teen boy or girl
respond to the scene = arrive
precipitation = rain, snow
purchase = buy
intoxicated = drunk
controlled substances = drugs
appendages = arms, legs
contusion = bruise
head trauma = head injury
laceration = cut
provide leadership = lead
obstruct = block, get in the way
came to the conclusion that = decided, figured out
arrived at a decision = decided
reside = live

 

**************

Follow Bob Ingrassia on Twitter.

Follow Fast Horse on Twitter.


Other posts by

  • McKinney

    You forgot “spearheaded.”

  • Eag111

    slew. no one says it in real life

    • Andrew Denny

      I was going to say ‘slay’, but slew’ll do!

  • MercReporter

    Why would you want journalists to write as people speak? People speak as simply as possible – if we based our language on common speech, great words would die overnight. I, for one, love altercation (what a word!) and am happy to keep it in the lexicon, even if you make fun of it later with your kids.

  • MercReporter

    Why would you want journalists to write as people speak? People speak as simply as possible – if we based our language on common speech, great words would die overnight. I, for one, love altercation (what a word!) and am happy to keep it in the lexicon, even if you make fun of it later with your kids.

    • http://www.theandrewmiller.com/ Andrew Miller

      I don’t think that’s the implication. Bob is saying people shouldn’t speak as journalists write. Otherwise, we’d all sound like the clowns hosting the 5 p.m. newscast.

      • Jon

        My first thought reading these phrases was “COPS talk like this!”  Really, they sound like phony assholes whenever someone gives them the mic; like they’re compelled to sound above their education level.

        The individual fled on foot after sustaining a gunshot wound to the lower extremities = The guy ran away after getting shot in the leg. >=/

        • Ted

          That’s one heck of a tough guy, outrunning cops with a bullet in his leg.

    • MontanaJay

      I’m a retired reporter and editor. My goal was always to avoid (remove) phrases like “respond to the scene,” “fatally injured,” “officers observed” and “fled on foot.” In all my years I never encountered “at this point in time,” except in quotes. Andrew Miller, I think Bob is saying what I’m saying: that journalists shouldn’t write like journalists.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.sharkey1 Joe Sharkey

    “Indeed,” … “spar” as a verb … “To be sure,”  … “Hence” … “Keystone State” or other state slogans on 2nd reference … “bespectacled” … “La La Land”

    • Spiderider77

       Spar is a verb when used in context of fighting.

  • Charlie Quimby

    I see terms here picked up from copspeak that are an attempt at neutrality or precision. For example, blunt force trauma makes a useful (in some contexts) distinction from other types of fatal injuries when specifying cause of death. But most are just bad habits.

  • http://www.mog.com/funoka funoka

    PR people should read this too. One of my fave cliches — for print, TV and radio:

    “State troopers will be out in full force this weekend”

    This is unrelated, but there should be a moratorium on TV live shots that begin:

    “It’s quiet here now, but just hours ago . . . [something happened].”

  • http://redoingmedia.com/ Betsy Richter

    authored by

    replace with ‘written by’ or [author name] wrote

  • Awayyoullneverbe

    What about “robust,” a gleaming, 50-cent word that has the virtue of being short, thus newspapery. It enjoyed 15 minutes of popularity a few years back and still shows up frequently.

    • http://twitter.com/aoscruggs aoscruggs

       Yeah, I’m really guilty of that sin. Thanks for pointing it out.

    • fairlady68

       Yes, I am really sick of that one…

  • Cecilia Deck

    “Lost his life” … how careless of him!

  • http://twitter.com/aoscruggs aoscruggs

    “Gave chase” instead of “chased”

  • gabriel

    My goodness. You realize what charmed lives we lead when we can lament a journalist using ‘precipitation’ in place of ‘rain’. Several of these derive from law enforcement (sorry… police) and legal terminology, so I would consider them more precise, and therefore, more journalistic.

  • Eric S. Smith

    slam into = hit

  • Jorgp

    “Speaking on the condition of anonymity, dad, I saw Sally ditch her peas under her plate last night.”

  • I’m guilty of this

    “spotlight” without a theater, “highlight” without a yellow marker, “senseless murder” — as opposed to a sensible one.

  • http://johnqcooper.com/ John Cooper

    I’d like to have heard the last of “hopeful” used as a noun (“presidential hopeful”) and “giant” used as an all-purpose synonym for any big company (“the software giant”).

    As a curiosity: At least as recently as ten years ago, the Portland Oregonian stilled used the word “solon” in its headlines.

  • Will Lingo

    “fuel” as a verb
    “relocate” instead of “move”

  • poisonscribe

    The most frustrating/ridiculous: “high rate of speed.” 

  • Margaret L

    Be fair – some of these words HAVE to be used: “vehicle” when you don’t know whether it’s a car or truck, “fatally injured” when the person doesn’t die immediately, “allegedly” when you’re trying to describe charges without libeling someone or being redundant.

    Of course, I’d be delighted if I never hear “perfect storm” again, but unfortunately I hear real people using that term a lot (if politicians, pundits and scientists can be called “real people”). 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Daly/100001653422318 Chris Daly

    Well said. In fairness, though, a lot of these usages creep into journalese from “cop talk.” Without the influence of police reports, we would have a far, far better chance of generating graceful English. Or, at least we would have only ourselves to blame!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kennedy/1813701 Dan Kennedy

    The Boston Herald continues to use “solon” for legislator and “jake” for firefighter. A favorite from my misspent youth: “The fire was determined to be of incendiary origin.” Well, gee, aren’t they all?

    • Paul Baker

       “Solon” is a headline word. I suspect “cop” is, as well, and “panel”when used in place of “committee” Those of us who are old enough remember counting letter values in headlines.

  • Dgainor

    Roil. And points for person who said solon!

    • Paul Baker

       Roil is a great word.

  • Hrslvr3610

    Melee…

  • http://twitter.com/Editer Brian Baresch

    “shuttered” — “The new rules mean two power plants will have to be shuttered.”

  • http://twitter.com/Editer Brian Baresch

    “panel” — “A House panel will address the issue.”

  • http://twitter.com/RobinJP Robin J Phillips

    What about “area hospital”?   

    • http://twitter.com/Editer Brian Baresch

      Similarly, “local hospital”. (“Area” by itself deserves a spot on the list.) “The victim was treated at a hospital 500 miles away” being the alternative.

  • http://twitter.com/KatieZemtseff Katie Zemtseff

    My editor wants to add many words to this list: facilitate, facility, probe and ink as in “ink a deal,” are just a few. Thanks for the GREAT list!

  • http://twitter.com/Editer Brian Baresch

    “vowed” — “The senator vowed to introduce a bill banning the practice.”

  • http://twitter.com/Editer Brian Baresch

    “residents” — “Two residents were bound with tape in a home invasion.” Also, “bound”.

  • Jfe811

    Most of these are very good but one is dead wrong: “Complainant” and “victim” are NOT synonymous.

    You’re not a victim until a court or arbitrator rules that. Many complaints are tossed out as groundless, and sometimes the complainants are flat-out lying, like the person who claimed to have found a finger in her Wendy’s chili so she could sue the company.

  • http://www.facebook.com/larkinvonalt Larkin Vonalt

    Here’s the rub: written English is not supposed to be the same as spoken English. Spoken English is vernacular, informal and idiosyncratic. As written English is already well on its way to hell in its proverbial hand-basket, I don’t thank you for pushing it further along. 

  • http://twitter.com/greenasagourd green as a gourd

    Not all teens are juveniles

  • http://twitter.com/greenasagourd green as a gourd

    And controlled substance is more specific than drugs. There are plenty of drugs the authorities haven’t discovered.

  • John Waddell

    Funny stuff.  Clever observation.  But journalists are not alone.  We all do this kind of silly stuff…

  • Anon

    Well…..no. Citizen and person are two different things. Intoxicated does not equate to drunk, which implies alcohol. Controlled substances does not mean drugs, some of which are not controlled. Deceased is a noun. Etc, etc. very sloppy of you.

    • zorrocket

      +1

  • Pingback: Beyonce’s body and bad re-writes | the news with nipples

  • AlbinoGrackle

    A lot of this verbiage is police, health care or legal terminology. Just quoting the source is easier and often more accurate, eg, if you say “he was speeding,” you have to find out the speed limits along the entire chase route and get all the speed readings off the police camera or other police records. “High rate of speed” is accurate and easier.

  • AlbinoGrackle

    A lot of this verbiage is police, health care or legal terminology. Just quoting the source is easier and often more accurate, eg, if you say “he was speeding,” you have to find out the speed limits along the entire chase route and get all the speed readings off the police camera or other police records. “High rate of speed” is accurate and easier.

    • http://twitter.com/timtfj Tim J

      “Rate of speed” is meaningless though. Speed is already rate of change of position. A “high rate of speed” is just a “high speed”, and “driving at a high rate of speed” is just “driving very fast”.

      • Albiongrackle

        You’re right. And that’s why God made copy editors AND editors (though I’m sure they’d debate each other’s origins). By the time verbiage reaches the public, maybe it’s decent.

  • Pingback: Words Journalists Use & Twitter Use « Second Degree Susan

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_LKE3VATNACXQVQD4QOAAELVYTM Angela

    My favorite journalistic line:   “Yet, others disagree.”  What others?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_LKE3VATNACXQVQD4QOAAELVYTM Angela

    My favorite journalistic line:   “Yet, others disagree.”  What others?

  • Nia C

    C’mon, now. Those words usually only slip in after the easy words have already been used twice. It is largely the case that such terminology then wends its way into our speech patterns. (Brother: Why did you throw out the dresser. Me: Because it fell in the moving truck and the structural integrity was compromised.)

    • Ol’ Scrapiron

      There’s no harm in repeating a word if it was right to begin with.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.throckmorton Brian Throckmorton

    “Hotly debated.”

  • Anonymous

    Secure. Ex: “I’m going to the kitchen to secure a beer.” Great list. My pet peeve phrase is “is no stranger to.” <>

  • Slkellogg

    Hmmmm. My only point – as a journalist and a former wife of a cop – is that certain people use longer descriptions to sound more official or important. Give her 10 inches to write an accident report, and you can bet an officer would find “speeding” more efficient than “at a high rate of speed.” 

    Also – how about “fully engulfed” in flames. It’s like saying “fully filled to the brim.”

  • AndreaF

    How about “incendiary device?” 

  • Pingback: Sh*t Journalists Say | Climatide

  • http://magicalthinkingbook.com/ Matthew Hutson

    Starting a sentence with “Says”.

    • http://twitter.com/timtfj Tim J

      Says who? (OK, I know that’s not what you mean… And you’re right.)

  • Pingback: Let your stories talk like you talk « Newsroom With A View

  • George Hesselberg

    hit the ground running

  • Seanachie

    I will quibble with “incendiary device” as it is very different from a bomb, being an ordnance timed to set fire to property. It was widely used in Northern Ireland by both Republicans and Loyalists (the latter of whom had notoriously poor bombmaking abilities). The effect was to intimidate business owners, often for racketeering purposes, without doing the widespread damage a bomb would have had

    • Ol’ Scrapiron

      “Incendiary device” = “firebomb”

  • http://twitter.com/joshclassen joshclassen

    I understand what all of these words/phrases mean…and they have a familiar “feel” to them when i read them.  You’re right, I’d never speak them…but what’s wrong with having words that exists purely for the “written” form? 

    • Seanachie

      One – because they are used as often by broadcast journalists as in print. Two – because they are, for the most part, jargon and they weaken both diction and prose. Three – there is, as the post shows, usually a preferable, simpler alternative.

      • http://twitter.com/timtfj Tim J

        I think it’s entirely a question of whether they add anything. Used by habit, they don’t. Used instead of a shorter and synonymous phrase, they don’t. Used inaccurately, they don’t (and infuriate people who are used to their correct technical meanings). But some of them have their place when they make an actual distinction which matters. The problem is that in newspapers and the like, technical language is very often misused.

  • http://twitter.com/timtfj Tim J

    A few of these are technical terms so would be valid if you’re aiming for technical precision

  • http://twitter.com/timtfj Tim J

    To be fair, a handful of these are technical terms which would be OK in a technical context, or ones which give a little more detail and precision. But they should only be used when that makes them necessary, and should only be used correctly.

    For example, “fatally injured” is more specific than “killed”, since it mentions injury. But even then, “died from his injuries” is better than “was fatally injured”. Though it’s unlikely you’d need it when talking about some kind of accident, since if someone is killed in an accident then injuries are already understood to be the cause.

    “Arrived at a decision” is different from “decided”, because it refers to the end of the decision process and implies that the decision took some time. But it could be shortened to “finally decided”.

    Phrases like “at this point in time”, though, are unforgiveable . . .

  • Pingback: Three Must-Read Links This Week | creativeconsiderations

  • aidel

    This is hilarious. I love it. The only difference I have with you is on medical terminology. We do use specifics at home (blunt force trauma is different from injury). I suppose the same could be said for many members of subcultures, since we seem to ‘absolutely require’ words that make us unique. For example, “Strib” is jargon, isn’t it?  Well, all I can say is, “after spending some time and effort pondering the use of language, I hope my thinking will yield some rational conclusions on the matter.”   ; )

  • Pingback: Broken English: Seen But Not Heard (Part 3) « The Hammering Heart

  • Pingback: story board Off the Wire: News for the Canadian media freelancer

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SSVK2WDNI77UP7OUFVFNDHSPTM Bibliophilist

    Off-topic, but a preposition is a terrible thing to end a sentence with.  (Nods to Winston Churchill).

    Also along those lines, this is something up with which we will not put.

  • http://magicalthinkingbook.com/ Matthew Hutson

    Referring to yourself in the third person (“a bystander,” “this reporter,” etc.).

    Journo Dad: “Put your toys away or you’ll anger an area father.”

  • Bob Hague

     ‘Hackneyed’ is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. Just because I never use the listed words in conversation doesn’t mean they aren’t appropriate choices for succinctly getting the point across to readers/listeners. Perhaps Mr. Ingrassia has some alternatives he’d like to share with the class? No? Didn’t think so. That said I do agree that ‘white stuff’ is never a suitable journalistic altervaive to snow. Leave that sort of tiresome twaddle to the morning show hosts.

    The list of pet peeve words from Mr. Ingrassia’s intro to reporting class are all commonly used terms in police reports – a fact I’m certain he knows yet fails to mention – and are commonly used by rookie reporters (and veterans who were never taught otherwise.) That’s why we rewrite them.

  • Bob Hague

    Okay, I’ll give you ‘blaze’ and ‘altercation’, too!  

  • http://www.sherwinarnott.org/ Sherwin Arnott

    Great article. Although I would add that hedging is sometimes important. It can be a sign of lazy thinking, sure. But hedging can also be a sign of understanding that an issue or an idea is too complex for the word count of an article. That’s important too!

  • Bozo

    And what about ‘set’?  Saying politicians are ‘set’ to do something is equivalent to a prediction; but if they don’t do it, the writer is still off the hook, because they didn’t say they were necessarily going to do it….

  • http://twitter.com/elopez_nyc Elias Lopez

    LOL – but I have to express a concern at this point in time: I see your daughter is holding a copy of The Times – half these phrases would not make it past our copy desk – we don’t finger or probe anybody (at least not in print) – but we’re not completely innocent either – funny stuff ;)

  • Rnigma1

    I recommend Rene Cappon’s book “The Word”, published by the AP (reprinted under another title) – a must-read (true, another hackneyed phrase, but deserved here) for all journalists.

  • Brian

    You’re so off the mark here, it’s crazy. First of all, you’re supposing that people write like they speak—which anyone who’s actually THOUGHT about good writing (and different KINDS of writing) knows that that’s not the case.

    • Catharine Zivkovic

      You sound like an old curmudgeon. 

      • Ted

        He also wrote “which anyone who’s actually thought about good writing … knows that that’s not the case.” Grammatical errors aside, the author is saying that people ought to write with less needless formality. It’s true.

    • Ed

      First thing they taught me in J-School at North Texas was to write like you talk.

  • Doogwh

    Many of these are not indeed synonyms: blunt-force trauma is a kind of injury, but there are other kinds; and “arriving at a decision” has quite a different connotation than the momentary “decided”. 

    At a higher level, it’s not clear to me why spoke language and written language need to coincide, or even why it would be desirable if they did.

  • Seantreacy

    Love this post!

    “Slated” has always been one of my favorites.

    “The supermarket trip has been slated for 4 p.m.”

  • fairlady68

    These annoying turns of phrase are not limited to journalists, or if they appear in the news they are often quotes from other people’s speech.  My primary news source is NPR and so the following are mostly taken from their broadcasts:

    “X is a poster child for Y”…Lord, I hate that one so much!
    “Robust,” as another commenter already mentioned
    “Thank you for having me” as a frequent response by an interviewee after being thanked by a journalist
    The total disappearance of the phrase “you’re welcome” in reply to “thank you”…it seems like people will do almost anything to avoid saying “you’re welcome” on the air.  WHY???
    Calling people repeatedly by their first and last name in order (apparently) to avoid being too intimate (e.g., first name basis) while still maintaining a more formal distance from the person being interviewed.  This is done even when one journalist is talking to another about a news event.
    “Fast forward to…” when the discussion moves from a past event to a more recent one

    ARRGH!  Thanks for letting me vent.

  • BlahX3

    “remains unclear”
    “murky”
    “There’s more.”
    Joe “noted” that….

  • Karen Schaefer

    Ya’ll need to try your hand at writing for radio!  If we used any of these words, our editors would just shoot us.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sue-Hickey/629694186 Sue Hickey

    don’t forget ‘state of the art” – highly overused – and paradigm shift, a term I learned in physics. It should stay there.

  • Davisja63

    What a hoot! One of the first things I learned in J-school was to write tight. As a former reporter/copy editor, I’d occasionally get dinged for a) being a bland writer (writing too tightly and not tossing in my own opinions) and b) editing too tightly, especially cutting graphs at the end of the story. Then, after I took a buyout and the paper started a reduction in expenditures, cutting costs and reductions in service (but never termination of employment), and I was hired as a free-lancer, I was given very tight word counts. Huh? 
    However, if you’re a full timer, news leads have to sound have to read like features ….
    I adore words and my collection of books about words is growing, but we’re talking selling newspapers and not making readers keep a disctionary at the breakfast table – unless they’re doing the crossword puzzle.

  • Inez

    We like what you say, and we think that news-speak as an impact on how the people in the news are humanised… or not. Take a look at what we have to say at http://write-clearly.blogspot.co.nz/

  • Pingback: A good read « Intro to Journalism & PR

  • Jenny Mertes

    I came across your blog while searching for “why do journalists say after instead of during or while?” because it annoys me that no one is ever injured or killed during an accident, fire, or attack. They’re always injured or they die after. Ever notice that? It’s a switch that seems to have happened with on-the-air reporting in the past five years.

  • Dennis Bolt

    Only the newspaper can uses “probe” or “fingered” with a straight face. After only 15 years in journalism, even I snicker though…

  • lois

    Most of these are things said to journalists… Cop-talk, PR-talk, doc-talk, meteorologist-talk, etc.

  • Michael Swaine

    Journalists are always shuttering things. Nobody else says that.

  • jaron

    I largely feel and critics contend that any altercation involving “fingered” or “blaze” is something we need not probe nor express concerns about until the white stuff falls.

  • brian okeefe

    how could you possible omit “slaying”? When journalists use this word rarely if ever are dragons involved.

  • Ed Spencer

    Lately, the word “unclear” is being used by reporters. A fancy way for reporters to admit they don’t know something.

  • Mitch Strand

    Whenever management and a union sign a contract, it has always been “hammered out.”

  • blueshift

    Beantown = Boston

  • Desko

    HaHaHa this has “cop talk” all over it