How to avoid confusing your readers or listeners
This is the second module on language and style from The News Manual. In the first we looked at the basics. Here we consider 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.
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. Our word lists will not be complete. You must use your common sense when using words not on our lists.
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:
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:
a great deal of
ahead of schedule
along the lines of
as of that time
at an early date
at that moment in time
at the present time
at this moment in time
by means of
cause injuries to
despite the fact that
due to the fact that
filled to capacity
gained entrance to
give approval to
give consideration to
give rise to
in advance of
in consequence of
in light of the fact
in many cases
in order to
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
measure up to
on the occasion of
on the part of
pay tribute to
place under arrest
render assistance to
shortfall in supply
submitted his resignation
take action on the issue
take into consideration
voice disapproval of
was of the opinion that
with reference to
with the exception of
housing or room
a lot of
put in hospital
to do/ carry out
cities or towns
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:
a distance of two metres
a number of examples
a period of two years
appear on the scene
ask the question
at a later date
comment to the effect that
continue in existence
during the course of
each and every
estimated at about
exactly the same as
face up to
few in number
for a period of
|hot water heater
in a week‘s time
last of all
never at any time
postpone until later
promoted to the rank of
small in size
strangled to death
whether or not
widow of the late
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
armed to the teeth
as luck would have it
at a loss for words
behind closed doors
benefit of the doubt
bigger and better
blessing in disguise
busy as a bee
calm before the storm
dramatic new moves
few and far between
flow like water
hail of bullets
hang in the balance
head over heels
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
more than meets the eye
nipped in the bud
order out of chaos
pool of blood
raced to the scene
sadder but wiser
sea of faces
second to none
sigh of relief
sign of the times
smell a rat
storm of protest
thick and fast
tower of strength
vanish into thin air
white as a sheet
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 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.
- 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 and clichés.
- If you do not understand a word you cannot expect your reader or listener to.
This module is taken from The News Manual’s Chapter 11: Language & Style – Words.