The Bottom Line on Cliches

Ombudsman

August 01, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

The British Broadcasting Corporation wants to get rid of its cliches with a new style book aimed at banning tired phrases. At The Baltimore Sun, getting rid of just one cliche, such as "the bottom line," might be as tough as cleaning up the Chesapeake.

Since 1990, Sun and Evening Sun writers, letter and other writers and subjects used the accountants' phrase, "bottom line" (the point of something) 2,094 times. In a July 1993 sampling of 50 examples, Sun story or headline writers used the phrase 16 times; others or people quoted were guilty the other 34 times.

The BBC "Style Guide" prompted me to ask our computer spy to check out some favorite Sun cliches that deserve to be finger-printed and jailed. These words used by lazy writers, editors and outsiders were picked at random. All were once vibrant words, but are now world-weary through overuse.

A crusty Rhode Island editor used the old line, "We avoid cliches like the plague," to acknowledge the problem. Baltimore Sun writers, editors and others should reach further than that desk-top basket of "level playing fields," "win-win situations" and "devout" church people.

Jean Packard, assistant chief librarian here, and reporter Frank Roylance helped extract figures showing Sunpapers writers are surely not below using exalted cliches. Yet our subjects, sources and letter writers are often the big-timers.

We grab for cliches to be on the cutting edge. Say, that's a nice phrase. The papers used "cutting edge" (frontier) 258 times. We reported "oil-rich" (name an Arab country) 94 times. Although "a gunman" means the same thing, we needlessly added "lone" for "a lone gunman" 25 times.

Sun writers (whose religiosity varies, one can say) spend a bit of time deciding that people out there are very religious. They and other writers like to confer "devoutness" on different denominations. It's the two-fer problem, the two-word cliche.

The computer spy reported that since 1990, these papers used the term "devout Christian" 24 times, "devout Catholic" 14 times, "devout Muslim" 8 times, "devout Buddhist" three times, "devout Jew" twice, "devout Presbyterian" twice, "devout Lutheran" and "devout Methodist," once each.

Sad to say, there were no "devout Baptists," no "devout Episcopalians" and no "devout Protestants" in this random check. Believers in these denominations might consider themselves lucky The Sun hasn't caught them in its cliche nets.

Pushing on, we "pushed the envelope" (stretched the limits) 21 times. Seven times Sun writers were guilty, the rest were others.

And 43 times we liked "level playing field" (fair and equal conditions for all). Eight Sun writers grabbed for the term; the rest were opinion pieces written by outside writers, wire stories or The Sun quoting people. Two Sun users were sports writers, presumably not talking about baseball played on hillsides.

Sad to say, holdup teams are so prevalent in Baltimore, that one phrase -- "Two men, one with a handgun" -- has been used 68 times, mostly in the Police Blotter just since this spring.

Columnist Mike Royko was premature to claim in July that "wake-up call" was "a burnt-out phrase" unless he meant only for him. Our readers woke up to "wake-up call" (a warning) 277 times. In a recent sample of 50 usages, 19 Sun writers were guilty, most of them sports writers.

Of 170 examples of "win-win" (no one loses) or its variants, a sample of 50 showed six Sun writers used the term. Many of the other users of the phrase were politicians eager to please everyone and make the world nice. The rest were letter writers or non-Sun writers.

The new 50-page BBC Style Guide also simplifies, for instance, substituting "now" for "at this moment in time." Tony Hall, BBC's managing director for current affairs, asks "If we misuse words, can we be trusted to get the facts right?" It's a fair question.

*

A Baltimore newspaper era ended yesterday. The last Suns and Sunday Suns were scheduled to be printed Friday night and Saturday morning at the Calvert Street plant. The newspaper moved there Christmas Eve, 1950 from its Baltimore street plant, where the Morris Mechanic Theater now sits.

Since January 1992, the company has been printing papers at its new Sun Park plant in Port Covington, South Baltimore and will now print all editions of The Sun and The Evening Sun there. News and business offices remain on Calvert Street.

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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