A dialect that looks like English

April 04, 2012|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

At Johnson, C.S.W. examines that odd form of English peculiar to newspapers, journalese.

"Newspapers rarely, if ever, report the facts in the way you would in conversation," he comments, and anyone who knows Paula LaRocque's classic "In a surprise move ..." understands just how far apart ordinary English conversation and the stilted, formulaic lingo of newspapers have drifted.

C.S.W. writes about the British form of journalese, which you can see from The Economist's style guide differs in many particulars from the American. (Not many mandarins on these shores.) And yet, the common elements are readily identifiable.

There are the empty adjectives, like prestigious, which The Economist understands to mean "something you won't have heard of." The are the cliche labels, like oil-rich countries, long-serving strongmen, and silver bullets. There are the stock introductions, It was the best of times, it was the worst of times being "certainly the feeblest of introductions."

Journalists learn the craft by monkey-see, monkey-do apprenticeship, imitating what is already being written, and usually told to do so by journalism instructors and editors. Thus dated slang and stock language survive as if preserved in amber. You can find a number of examples at Tom Mangan's Banned for Life site.

It is taking the business an unconscionably long time to discover that many of the readers for whom these formulas and stock phrases are familiar and comfortable are no longer on this side of the ground. (I remind you of the suggestion by a former Sun colleague that we change the "obituaries" logo to read "subscriber countdown.") And yet we persist.

The word for trite, overfamiliar, and overused language is hackneyed. We get the word from hack, originally a worn-out hired horse, transformed over time to apply to a low-grade writer for hire. Hack in the latter sense is a term our British cousins in the trade apply to themselves with a perverse pride. And Lord knows that so much stodge has passed through my hands that I have no business turning up my nose at the label.

Still, among the many reasons that the rising generations have never developed the newspaper habit, one must surely be the odd, awkward, vaguely repellent, non-conversational dialect that we have claimed for our own. It is, in its own way, as off-putting as the bureaucratese that we echo in writing about government.

One would like to be optimistic that journalists might begin to break free of outworn conventions. But look at Ms. LaRocque's little burlesque, which has been in print for a dozen years and which she had used in workshops for years before publication, and count how many stock phrases you still see today.

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