The curse of bad language: A pedantic journalist share his advice

Phil Castle

With the possible exception of beer tasters and luxury bed testers, every job comes with pros and cons. Newspaper journalism offers no exception.

Pros: You meet interesting people and write about the interesting things they do. You learn about all sorts of cool subjects, often from experts. In that respect, it’s like getting paid to attend TED Talks.

Cons: If you’re motivated solely by wages, you’d fare better in just about any other line of work. And while nearly every day is different, the pressure to meet deadlines never relents. It’s sometimes nagging and other times excruciating.

Here’s another drawback to working in newspaper journalism and the moral of today’s story. You grow overly sensitive to mistakes in writing and speaking. You wince at a misspelled word. You cringe at a trite expression. And you loathe the blockheaded blunders people blithely allow to creep into the accepted use of the language of Shakespeare. I could warn you newspaper journalists can get anal retentive that way. But I’d be repeating myself.

Before someone calls attention to the stones I’m throwing in my glass house, I’ll readily acknowledge I’m not perfect. Far from it. For example: I butchered the word emulate in a recent editorial published in this very business journal. I spelled it immulate. Good grief. Alert readers could be forgiven for wondering if I was going for immolate. Of course, there’s a difference between trying to imitate something and burning it. Even after 40 years in the business, I’m astounded how screw-ups so obvious in newsprint somehow eluded what I believed was my fastidious proofreading. I’m terrified, in fact, I’m going to make a stupid mistake in this column upon which someone even more pedantic than I will pounce.

I strive to avoid mistakes as a matter of good journalistic practice. I admit, though, I’m also motivated by the chance to assert some imagined moral authority. In other words, to whine about it.

There’s a point, I suppose, to pointing out the writing and speaking mistakes I most often read and hear. Business communication is far more effective when the message is clear, concise and free of distracting errors. That’s true of reports, proposals and even emails. Call this a public service. In all honesty, call this an opportunity to lift all this off my chest.

So without further ado, here are a few of my least favorite things:

Apostrophe abuse. These poor, misunderstood punctuation marks signal two things — possession or missing letters. For example: Phil’s screed was poorly executed. It’s unfortunate we’re subjected to reading it. That long and tedious bit of writing definitely belongs to Phil. Plus, the i and a were left out of the contractions. By the way, apostrophes generally don’t belong with plurals, including family names or decades.

Disagreeable subjects and pronouns. It’s best when subjects and pronouns are both singular or plural. Problems arise, though, when genders get thrown into the mix. What happens when a singular employee leaves their paperwork behind? Bad grammar. Given the awkward alternative of his or her paperwork, the better option would be to use a plural subject. Employees are reminded to not leave their paperwork behind. Better still, avoid using pronouns whenever possible.

Unearned entitlement. Although it’s debatable in some quarters, I don’t believe books, articles or speeches are entitled to anything. They can, however, have titles. A book isn’t entitled “How to Avoid Mistakes in Writing and Speaking.” It’s titled “How to Avoid Mistakes in Writing and Speaking.”

Total destruction. Every time I read or hear something is totally destroyed, I want to throttle the offending writer or speaker. Something is either destroyed or it’s not. It’s certainly not destroyed to any greater degree with the addition of an adverb. The same thing holds true for other binary conditions. A woman isn’t completely blind any more than she’s partially pregnant. Adjectives and adverbs are overused anyway.

The temptation to literally use literally in every sentence. While it’s understandable people want to emphasize what they’re trying to say, literally means actually or without exaggeration. If they tell you their heads literally exploded, they either mean figuratively or they’re lying.

Doubling down on doubling down. Unless you’re playing black jack, you’re gambling with what’s become one of the most frequently used expressions I’ve ever detested. And that’s saying something.

Writing the wrong words. It’s a sneak peek, not peak. It’s free rein, not reign. You whet an appetite, not wet one. And, for heaven’s sake, use bated breath, not baited breath. There are no worms involved.

I could go on. And on. And on. But I suspect I long ago made my point about the occupational hazards of newspaper journalism. I can only hope the pros — and prose — outweigh the cons.