Chapter 11: Language & style - words
 

Chapter 11: Language & style - words

In this, the second chapter on Language & Style, we look at the words you use to tell your story. We see how important spelling is and how to avoid confusing your readers or listeners with the words you choose. We also list some words which are better than others, words you should avoid and some words which are commonly misused - together with the correct forms. In the following two chapters in this section we will look at grammar and at translations.

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So far, we have been looking at some general principles governing the way we write for understanding. We now look in more detail at words themselves - which words or phrases help understanding and which do not. We will give you separate sections for common errors. However, our word lists will not be complete. You must use your common sense when using words not on our lists.

Spelling

Languages are in a constant state of change. English, as the world's most widely used language, changes faster than most. Spelling is an area in which this change is most noticeable. There are two standards in spelling - Commonwealth English and American English. Which spelling you choose will depend on usage in your country. Most media organisations decide on a particular alternative and stick to it. Here are some examples of alternative spellings:

COMMONWEALTH
colour
organise
through
defence
jewellery
AMERICAN     
color
organize
thru
defense
jewelry

Jargon

Jargon is specialised language concerned with a particular subject, culture or profession. It is not usually found in the everyday speech of your ordinary reader or listener. Typical of jargon are such things as medical or technical terms, understood by small groups of specialists in their own fields. For example, a coronary thrombosis to a doctor is commonly called a heart attack by the layman. Computer scientists speak of accessing data when ordinary people talk about getting information.

There is an obvious need for such technical terms in context, such as the doctor's surgery or the computer room. Unfortunately, jargon words tend to spill over into the media. This is partly because journalists want to impress readers or listeners by their knowledge and partly because journalists do not understand what they have been told. Bad journalists find it easier to pass on the problem to their audience by simply repeating the difficult words which they have been given and don't understand. You should first ask the person concerned to explain what they mean in simpler terms.

This is especially obvious in reporting on government and the public service. Officials often hide behind their own jargon, using it as a wall to keep the public away from their secrets. A Papua New Guinea Minister for Minerals, speaking about foreign shareholders in a big mine, was quoted as saying:

"...they were invited to participate in the development of that mineral resource and they are obligated to honour their agreement to participate."

Put into simple English, this means:

They agreed to take part in mining and must stick to that agreement.

Notice that we have had to take the sentence out of direct quotes. You cannot drastically alter the words a person says and leave your readers or listeners believing that they were a direct quote. It is much better to use reported speech that people can understand than use quotes which they cannot.

The message is clear. If you do not understand what you are writing, do not write it. If you have a good knowledge of language, you can translate jargon yourself. If you have any doubts, go back to the people who gave you the information and ask them: "What does it mean in plain English?"

Having said that, there are times when you have to use technical or otherwise difficult terms. In such cases, you should provide an explanation for your reader or listener. This need not be complicated. In the following example, we use the term de facto and explain it within the natural structure of the story:

The immigration service says it will no longer recognise de facto relationships in issuing visas.
Officials say that in future, they will only give joint entry permits to couples who are married.
Men and women living together in de facto relationships will have to apply separately.

Always try to explain abstract jargon in concrete terms; that is, translate ideas into what they mean in the day-to-day lives of your readers or listeners. This is important in areas such as economics and government. For example, a ten percent annual rate of inflation means for most people that the dollar in the pocket a year ago now buys only 90 cents-worth of goods. An increase in the basic tax rate means that workers will get less money in their pay packet.

Public servants often take ordinary words and alter their use, making them difficult for people to understand. For example, they talk about sighting a document when they really mean they saw it. To sight something usually means suddenly seeing it from a distance. To complicate matters further, there is also a verb to cite a document, which means to quote from it. To a radio listener, "sight" and "cite" both sound the same. There are numerous examples of misuse which you should avoid whenever possible.

The following is a list of jargon words and phrases. Alongside each there is an example of a good alternative:

absence of
accommodate
accommodation
adequate
adjacent to
affluent
a great deal of
ahead of schedule
along the lines of
anticipate
approximately
ascertain
as of that time
assistance
at an early date
attempt
at that moment in time
at the present time
at this moment in time
behind schedule
beverage
by means of
cause injuries to
commence, commencement
compel
concerning
constructed of
currently
deceased
demonstrate
despite the fact that
discontinue
dispatched
donate
due to the fact that
encounter
eventuate
exceedingly
facilitate
filled to capacity 
gained entrance to
gathered together
give approval to
give consideration to
give rise to
hospitalisedhospital
to implement
in addition
in advance of
in attendance
in consequence oof
inform
in isolation
initiate
in light of the fact
in many cases
in order to
inquire
in regard to
in spite of
in spite of the fact that
in the course of
in the direction of
in the event of
in the vicinity of 
is suffering from
made good their escape
manufacture
materialise
measure up to
meet with
necessitate
an objective
on the occasion of
on the part of
participate
passed away
pay tribute to
persons/personnel 
place under arrest
to possess
prior to
proceed
purchase
regarding
render assistance to
residence
shortfall in supply
submitted his resignation
subsequently
sufficient
sustained injuries
take action on the issue
terminate
take into consideration
transmit
urban centres
utilise
valued at
voice disapproval of
was of the opinion that
whole of 
with reference to
with the exception of

no
hold or seat
housing or room
enough
near
rich
a lot of
early
like
expect
about
find out
then
help
soon
try
then
now
now
late
drink
by/using
injure
start
force
about/on
made of
now
dead
show
although
stop
sent
give
because
meet
happen
very
help
full
got in
met
approve
consider
cause
put in hospital
to do/ carry out
also
before
there
because of
tell
alone
start
because
often
to
ask
about
despite
although
while
towards
in/if
near
has
escaped
make
happen/appear
fit/reach
meet
force/need
an aim
when
by
take part
died
thank/praise
people/workers/staff
arrest
to have
before
go
buy
about
help
home
shortage
resigned
later
enough
was hurt
act
end
consider
send
cities or towns
use
worth
object to
thought/said
all
about
except

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Unnecessary words

People frequently put in extra words or phrases which do not add to understanding. As a journalist you should judge which words help your reader or listener and which only make the sentence longer. For example, people write about waiting for a period of two years. The phrase a period of is unnecessary; you should simply say waiting for two years.

Another common fault, particularly in the spoken word, is to add adjectives or adverbs to nouns or verbs which should not have them. In grammar, this is called redundancy. It usually happens where the noun or verb is an absolute; that is, where something either is or is not, with no half measures. It is clearly wrong to describe a woman as very pregnant. A woman is either pregnant or she is not; there is a definite moment when she becomes pregnant. If the very is being used to indicate that she has been pregnant for several months, it is best to give exact details saying, for example, the woman is eight months pregnant.

It is equally wrong to describe a person as utterly dead. There is a moment at which life stops; people are either dead or they are alive, they cannot be slightly dead or rather dead. They may be nearing death, but that is a different and quite acceptable phrase.

The following is a list of unnecessary words and redundant phrases. Get rid of the words in italics:

absolute perfection
absolutely necessary
accidentally stumble
acute crisis
adequate enough
advance planning
a distance of two metres
all-time record
a number of examples
a period of two years
appear on the scene
ask the question
assemble together
at a later date
attach together
best ever
blazing inferno
broad daylight
comment to the effect that
completely untrue
connect together
continue in existence
continue on
co-operate together
definite decision
during the course of
each and every
entirely new
estimated at about
ever since
exactly identical
exactly the same as
face up to
few in number
filter out
follow after
for a period of
future prospect
gather together
general public
honest truth

hot water heater
in a week's time
joined together
just recently
last of all
link together
may possibly
meet together
merge together
necessary requirement
never at any time
new beginning
new innovation
new record
original source
other alternative
past history
postpone until later
promoted to the rank of
quite empty
quite unique
raise up
repeat again
returned back
share out
sink down
small in size
still continue
strangled to death
temporarily suspended
total extinction
totally destroy
totally unnecessary
true facts
unite together
usual custom
violent explosion
whether or not
widow of the late
win out
worst ever
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Clichés

These are phrases which have been used so often in such a variety of situations that they have lost most of their meaning and force. They become boring to regular readers or listeners and should be avoided.

Journalists in older English-speaking countries such as Britain and the United States are usually taught to avoid clichés. There are two problems facing young journalists in developing countries in the use of clichés. One is that clichés often depend on aspects of a culture specific to certain countries. To describe something which happens very slowly, a British person might say at a snail's pace, whereas an American would say as slow as molasses in January (a reference to the way that sticky liquids like molasses are harder to pour in cold weather). The American cliché might not be understood by many British people, who call molasses treacle. It would be meaningless to people living south of the Equator, for whom January is a hot month - and for people in the tropics who have no experience of cold seasons.

Journalists should be able to recognise clichés which develop in the language of their own country. If, for example, everyone talks about things or people being as fat as a buffalo, this becomes a cliché. The good journalist will find an alternative which is more accurate or more lively.

The second problem with clichés is that phrases which have become boring in one country may seem fresh and powerful in another. Again, it is your responsibility as a journalist to recognise which phrases are fresh and meaningful, which are stale and meaningless.

We will give you a list of phrases which have become clichés in most of the developed English-speaking nations. It is for you to decide which are clichés in your country:

a bee in his bonnet
all walks of life
all-out effort
armed to the teeth
as luck would have it
at a loss for words
bated breath
beaming smile
behind closed doors
benefit of the doubt
bigger and better
bitter end
blessing in disguise
blunt instrument
brutally murdered
budding genius
busy as a bee
calm before the storm
colourful scene
conservative estimate
crime wave
crystal clear
daring robbery
dramatic new moves
dull thud
easy prey
fateful day
festive mood
few and far between
finishing touches
flow like water
foregone conclusion
gruesome find
hail of bullets
hang in the balance
head over heels
hot pursuit
ill-fated
in full swing
in the hot seat
in the limelight
in the nick of time

innocent as a newborn baby
in no uncertain terms
laid to rest
last but not least
like two peas in a pod
long arm of the law
loomed on the horizon
lucky few
man hunt
marked contrast
more than meets the eye
Mother Nature
mystery surrounds
nipped in the bud
order out of chaos
pool of blood
proud father
raced to the scene
rags-to-riches
red-blooded male
sadder but wiser
sea of faces
second to none
sigh of relief
sign of the times
silver lining
smell a rat
sparkling eyes
steaming jungle
storm of protest
stormy session
sweeping changes
terror-stricken
thick and fast
tiny tots
top-level meeting
tower of strength
vanish into thin air
watery grave
whirlwind tour
white as a sheet
widespread anxiety
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Troublesome words

A large number of words in the English language are misused. Often it is simply a matter of confusion between similar-sounding words. It is important that you use words correctly. For example, there is often confusion in radio and television between the word diseased (which means having a disease) and deceased (which means dead). In fact, the word deceased causes young reporters so many problems you should avoid using it altogether. Police reports often speak of the deceased when referring to a dead man or woman. A reporter who simply parroted a police statement about a fight between two men wrote the sentence:

The deceased went up to the accused and hit him over the head with a stick.

It is clearly nonsense to say that a dead man hit anybody over the head with a stick. Dead people do not do that. The sentence would have been much clearer if the reporter had used both men's names.the deceased
The following is a list of words which frequently cause problems, especially through misuse:

affect: is a verb meaning to have an influence on. Often confused with effect which is the noun. So we say: The girl's headache affected her performance, but the noise had no effect on her.

all right: is two words. Do not spell it alright.

alternatives: a choice between two things. If there are more than two, use choices.

among: used when there are more than two things. If there are two things, say between.

anxious: means to be troubled or worried. It is sometimes wrongly used to mean eager.

beside: means at the side of. Besides means in addition to.

canvass: means to ask for something. Do not confuse it with canvas, which is a cloth.

charge: there is often confusion between to charge with and to charge for. A person is charged with an offence (the man was charged with murder) People are charged for goods or services they receive (he was charged $20 for his ticket).

chronic: means long-lasting. When talking about illness, it is often confused with acute, which means severe.

continual: means happening lots of times. Do not confuse with continuous, which means happening all the time without a break.

council: is a meeting. Counsel is advice. A councillor is an elected representative on a council. A counsellor is someone who gives advice. We also refer to lawyers in court cases as counsel, because they give legal advice.

decimate: literally it means to kill one in ten. Today it is used to describe heavy casualties. It does not mean to destroy.

disappeared: traditionally only ever used as an intransitive verb (i.e. without an object), as in "the rabbit disappeared". Now in some versions of English it is used as a transitive verb (i.e. with an object, usually human) to mean to intentionally make someone disappear, as in "the regime disappeared hundreds of dissidents", though this form is still unusual in British, Australian or American English.

disinterested: means not being directly affected by the issue one way or the other. Do not confuse with uninterested, which means lacking any kind of interest.

hang: a criminal is hanged, clothes are hung.

immigrant: a person who comes into the country to live permanently. It is confused with

emigrant, who is a person who leaves his or her own country to live permanently in another country. An emigrant from one country becomes an immigrant into another.

invaluable: means of too much value to be priced. It is often wrongly used to mean without value.

less: confused with fewer. Less refers to quantity (less water, less flour, less fruit). Fewer refers to number (fewer boys, fewer coconuts).

licence: in Commonwealth English, this is the noun. To license is the verb.

literally: usually confused with figuratively. Literally means exact to the letter. If it happens literally, it happens exactly the way it is described. People speak of being "literally dead on my feet". If they were, they would be dead.

loan: is the noun. The verb is to lend.

over: means above. When talking about numbers, use more than (there were more than 50 people in the hall).

practice: is the noun. To practise is the verb.

principal: means the main one or the first. We speak of the principal instalment or the school principal. It is often confused with principle, which is a moral guideline.

Scots: these are people from Scotland, who are Scottish. Do not confuse it with the whisky called Scotch.

stationary: is an adjective meaning standing still. It is confused with stationery, a noun meaning writing materials.

treble: mean three times. Do not confuse with triple, which means three kinds. A treble chance gives you three chances of winning. A triple jump is an event involving three kinds of jumping action.

Ukraine: is the name of the country, not the Ukraine, which was a label used by the former Soviet Union to imply it was a region rather than an independent state.

whisky: Scotch whisky is spelled without an `e'. Irish and American whiskey is spelled with an `e'.

You can read more about troublesome words at the Common Errors in English website by Paul Brians. It is based on American English and contains hundreds of simple explanations of correct English usage.

Doublespeak and weasel words*

Also called doublespeak, weasel words are words or phrases used to hide or justify something bad the speaker is ashamed to have exposed.

Doublespeak weasel words are different from those that are simply used as padding, a distraction or to give the speaker time to get into the main part of their argument. These include, for example, “with respect”, “if I’m honest”, “it’s not for me to comment but …”. They will overload both your sentences and the reader’s/listener’s attention so they can usually be dropped altogether, as we explain above and in Chapter 5.

Nor are doublespeak weasel words just jargon, though as we explain above some words and phrases are the same and are used for the same reason – to obscure the real meaning.

Jargon, however, has another, more justifiable use when it is part of the specialist vocabulary of a trade or profession. Doctors when speaking to each other often rely on jargon to convey specialist meanings in an efficient way, though they should not use it when trying to explain a complex idea to an uninformed patient. Neither should journalists repeat such specialist jargon unless they know their listeners or readers will understand.

But that is not what we are talking about with weasel doublespeak. The doublespeak kind of weasel words that are used to hide bad news, avoid blame or confuse the listener should not be used by journalists, though they can be quoted when attributed to someone else. A journalist’s job is to inform and explain in words your readers, listeners or viewers can understand, so you should ask the speaker to explain what they mean by a word or phrase that is obviously doublespeak. The simplest polite way is to ask something like: “You say the matter is under active consideration – what does that mean to ordinary people like my listeners/readers?” If you are asking face-to-face, a puzzled look will help you to make the point. If the interviewee declines to give more details or clarify the matter, you can quote them and then look elsewhere for the plain truth to enlighten your audience.

The following are just a few examples of doublespeak weasel words in current circulation.

Entries marked “(Crikey)” were adapted from an article in the online magazine of that name written by Charlie Lewis on 30 December 2020.

Active consideration: Saying a matter is “under active consideration” avoids having to reveal what practical actions the politician or company executive is taking. It sounds more real than “under consideration”, which can mean anything someone is thinking about. A journalist confronted with the excuse “under active consideration” can reasonably ask: “What does that mean in practice, in words our listeners/readers would understand?”

Administrative error: This implies that the wrongdoing was not actually committed by the people responsible, but was just an error in the process – not even a mistake and certainly not a misdeed. (Crikey)

Boots on the ground: This cliché describes sending soldiers into battle or at least into combat readiness (i.e. waiting to fight). It de-personalises the fact the boots are worn by men and women who may be killed or wounded and that other men, women and children may be killed by their actions. [See collateral damage.]

Collateral damage: Often used by politicians and public servants (especially the military) to avoid saying people were killed or injured. People are collateral damage when the speaker is responsible for the harm; they become “men, women and children” when the speaker is attacking someone else for doing it.

Commercial-in-confidence: The catch-all term used by governments and corporations to deny information to journalists, citizens, taxpayers and customers. Being both commercial and confidential, it is so broad it can be applied to almost any activity undertaken by any organisation. One problem when confronted with “commercial-in-confidence” is YDKWYDK – you don’t know what you don’t know. Not only will the user refuse to divulge perfectly acceptable information but they refuse to say even what that information is or why it is “commercial-in-confidence”. It’s a circular argument and there is no magic trick to get such people to divulge information they say is commercial-in-confidence, so go into investigate journalist mode and find someone who will talk.

External career development opportunities: So laughably obvious as weasel words, this phrase used by ABC Australia’s chairman Justin Milne left no-one in doubt he was asking the corporation’s managing director to sack troublesome journalist Emma Alberici. This proved the “serious media” can be just as guilty as anyone in utilising doublespeak and won the Plain English Foundation’s 2018 top award for worst word or phrase.

Extraordinary rendition: There are probably many thousand weasel terms invented by governments and corporations in particular to avoid telling the plain truth about something embarrassing. But one which matches “collateral damage” for cynicism is the term “extraordinary rendition”. This is a process by which a government secretly moves a captive to a country where laws preventing torture to obtain information are not so strict. United States agencies used extraordinary rendition after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington to move terror suspects to countries such as Egypt where they could be tortured away from the oversight of US laws. In one sense, “extraordinary rendition is not an effective weasel word because it grew to have only one meaning, which everyone understood, i.e. kidnapping for torture.

Let go: Used by employers when sacking someone, including making them redundant. It sounds as if the affected employee(s) were eager to leave when, in fact, they were probably fired against their will.

National security and homeland security: Although both terms have clear and justifiable uses, they are often also used to halt further discussion of issues governments don’t want to reveal to citizens simple because they are embarrassing. The misuse of a term such as “national security” simply to save political embarrassment brings its whole usage into disrepute and contributes to a general mistrust of government. [See also “commercial in confidence”.]

Regret: Used to avoid saying sorry when there is something to apologise for. Regret refers only to the speaker’s feeling about the issue, not to the wrongdoing itself. Anyone can feel regret that something bad has happened, but only the person responsible for the wrongdoing can genuinely apologise. When someone is expected to apologise but will not say “sorry”, they express their regret. (Crikey)

There is an even worse variant sometimes used by company spokespeople and politicians – “we regret people feel offended”. Far from apologising or even expressing sorrow about the harm for which they were responsible, the speaker is effectively blaming people forfeeling offended.

The people understand/the people know: The speaker/writer absolves themselves from any blame by calling up a mythical and usually undefined “people” as support. It is similar to “the silent majority” (Crikey)

Silent majority: So silent or so numerous that they don’t see the need to speak for themselves. When you can count the number of people for or against an issue, they stop being the silent majority and become “surveys show”. Surveys, of course, need to be supported by evidence, so the silent majority is often invoked when surveys fail to support the speaker/writer’s argument.

An abundance of caution: Used when the speaker/writer doesn’t want to do anything about a problem. They are not being inactive, just abundantly cautious. (Crikey)

This isn’t the time: Hiding behind one event to avoid doing something about another issue. With some issues for some politicians and civic leaders there is never the right time for some things. (Crikey)

Take it on notice: Means “I don’t want to answer that now so I will go away and maybe – or maybe not – find the answer. In some formal settings such as public inquiries, the minister or public servant may genuinely need to go away to find the answer – which they will then be expected to feed back to the questioner. But even then it is often just a ploy to avoid answering. They hope the questioner will forget to come back later for an answer. As a journalist you should make a diary note to check for an answer.

Under active consideration: See active consideration above.

Further reading

A list such as the above is clearly incomplete. So many doublespeak weasel words have been added to our language over the years and continue to be created that no list will ever be complete or long enough.

One of the best lists is ‘Weasel Words: The Dictionary of American Doublespeak’ by Paul Wasserman and Don Hausrath, Capital Ideas Book, 2005. Unfortunately, there is no eBook version and the print edition is expensive and hard to find, unless it can be borrowed from your local library.

Another from an American perspective is Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceptive Language by Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf, Blue Rider Press, 2015.

And for Australians, there is Don Watson’s classic 'Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words', Vintage Australia, 2005.

* Weasel words are named after the weasel, which is traditionally believed to be a sneaky, untrustworthy animal.

TO SUMMARISE:

You must keep your language clear and simple so that your readers or listeners can understand.

Check any spellings you are unsure of; spelling is important.

Explain any new words whenever you use them.

Avoid jargon, unnecessary words, clichés and doublespeak weasel words.

Remember, if you do not understand a word or phrase you cannot expect your reader or listener to.

This is the end of the second part of this four-part section on language & style. If you now want to read on, follow this link to the third section, Chapter 12: Language & style - grammar.

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