Magazine article Communication World

Amaze and Gratify Your Readers

Magazine article Communication World

Amaze and Gratify Your Readers

Article excerpt

"Statistics prove," intoned the radio newscaster, "that 1991 was a banner year for arson here in the city." Weird, I mused, turning the GTI onto the Mass. Pike on-ramp. If they ever offer amnesty to Philanderers, that guy'll announce a red-letter day for adulterers

After all, a banner year is one that's outstanding in the sense of something positive -- a banner year for crops, for sales; the reader recoils from anomalies like banner year for rape or murder. Or arson,

But this kind of contradiction, cloaked in other clothes, waits patiently to mug the hasty, preoccupied word merchant. Here follow some what-I-means:

"Jones, 65, suffered a broken ankle thanks to a fall on the icy sidewalk." (Boston newspaper) Thanks to? Carry that one more slip: "Smithwick lost all his front teeth thanks to a punch in the mouth."

And here's how The Wall Street Journal presented it: "Williamsburg's paid attendance slipped by 116,794 in 1991, to 940,195, thanks they say to the recession."

A television newsperson told me a convicted murderer had been declared "eligible for the death penalty." Aaah RIGHT! Finally made the short list.

Writing in Newsweek, Joyce Carol Oates told how late heavyweight boxer Charles (Sonny) Liston had "numerous arrests to his credit."

The same snare mortified a Boston Globe social commentator: "The kids (of divorce) suffer more than previously we had given them credit for."

Though responsibility has at last caught on, I still occasionally hear that "an IRA source took credit for the bombing." Yet another spin Ph.D. reported that a team was "credited with the loss."

How do you feel about this form of recognition? -- "[Doucett] is now fighting terminal cancer. He has been a fixture at [our] sporting events for over three decades and his absence has been felt." To me, fixture goes with fight; it connotes something mechanical, apersonal, useful from time to time, but not at all memorable.

This is not what the columnist meant, of course, and it is part of the penalty one pays for not listening to the words. Try calling the man a varsity fan, a regular first-string supporter, a dependable perennial ... any jock cliche will do. But beware the too-handy word or phrase. As the tee-shirt wisdom goes, measure twice, cut once. (No doubt you sighed at that passively juiceless "his absence has been felt." Why not go on-line with what is real? -- "We miss him.")

All of the above evoke what is to me one of Elwyn Brooks White's more memorable advisories: "When you say something, make sure you have said it. …

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