Magazine article Policy & Practice

Of False Titles and Writing Peculiarities

Magazine article Policy & Practice

Of False Titles and Writing Peculiarities

Article excerpt

If you are a neophyte in writing, you probably want to learn to write the way the old pros do. And if you are an old pro, you might want to test your performance. Here is the lesson:

Journalistic writing, like business writing and academic writing, is a dialect by itself. Since we changed the prose and tone of our writing style from one for academics and research to a breathless, breezy style, you will find many points of difference from the writing you will find in well-edited books and academic journals. Pay no attention to the fact that you will hear it scorned occasionally as journalese. There must be a reason why news writing has developed its own peculiarities, and some day that reason will be explained, I hope.

First and foremost, never use appositives: instead, make titles (sometimes ridiculed as false titles) of them. Don't say "Griffekkin is an opera for children by the distinguished California composer, Lukas Foss." Make it "Griffekkin is an opera for children by distinguished California composer Lukas Foss." This jams things together in the time-honored manner of news writers. "He was accompanied by his wife, Beth"? Never. "He was accompanied by his wife Beth." Never mind the lack of the comma turns the noun into a specific subject, meaning that he has more than one wife, which is probably what he doesn't want known.

News magazines are especially adept at this mannerism. Social scientists and public human service researchers tend to give false titles to many things and uppercase just about everything, but few would venture false titles as one national magazine, which created well-remembered sentences like "He remembered Fellow Columnist William S. White" and "Watergate Burglar James McCord confirmed the reports."

If it's true that the false title is discouraged, albeit weakly, in the stylebooks of wire services, there is no little evidence that the discouragement is noticed by officials in the human service world, much less in the academic world. This makes the hard-to-read jargon-filled social science and public policy literature even harder to read, with copies filled with MSW, MPHs and PhDs and LLPs. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the wire services remain the fount and wellspring of the false title. The only paper I know of that not only discourages false titles but successfully bars them is the New York Times. This may be one of the lesser reasons why the Times enjoys the regard it does among a sophisticated and well-educated readership. …

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