The nuts and bolts of communication
Chapter 3 from the book ‘A journalist’s guide to the use of English’
PRECISION IN WRITING DEPENDS ON WORD POWER, without this, communication is impaired. Words and phrases are the nuts and bolts which hold the communications bridge together. The writer must, therefore, learn to recognise the exact words and phrases needed to convey meaning to the reader. And the writer must also be ruthless in rejecting any word or phrase which shows signs of fatigue through over-use.
The development of word power comes only with practice. It requires an inquiring mind and a careful attitude. Carefulness means more than simply trying to avoid careless mistakes. It also involves being concerned about quality, about taking a professional pride in one’s craftsmanship as a writer.
This is an attitude of mind that cannot be taught; it can only be caught. However, it may be helpful to point out common pitfalls.
MANY errors occur because the writer overstates the case in an effort to achieve impact, and this, perhaps, is the most common occupational hazard which the journalist faces. It is this striving for effect which makes every Good Samaritan into a hero, every accident into a horror, every disturbance into a fracas, every confusion into chaos and every blaze into an inferno (in fact, a synonym for hell). It is this which leads the reporter to write of a ‘flu outbreak decimating the school population (the word means to select by lot and put to death one in ten), or of a noisy meeting being a shambles (the word means slaughterhouse).
A knowledge of word derivation helps in selecting the right word, so if you find yourself using these strong words, look them up in the dictionary and discover what they really mean.
JUST as irritating to the reader are those words used metaphorically where more direct speech would be better.
E.g. BANK RATE HITS NEW CEILING
Here the word ceiling is used to mean a limit, which it does not. The word hits suggests something solid and immovable whereas events in recent years have demonstrated that the Bank Rate is far from fixed. This sort of over-statement should be avoided.
Over-worked words and phrases
THE SEARCH for the short word for a headline has created a specialised subs’ vocabulary which makes every inquiry into a quiz, every debate into a row and every investigation into a probe. Fortunately, the trend towards the lower case headline has eased the demands of the count and there is no more scope for words that are not quite so threadbare as these.
But, whereas the headline writer is always searching for the short word. the writer often uses compound words or prepositional phrases where the short word would be better.
adjacent to for near
at this point in time for now
in consequence of for because
These are just as unnecessary as those adverbial phrases such as: with regard to, by and large.
Try to avoid vague abstract words such as: case, instance, character, nature, condition, etc. There will be occasions when these words have to be used, but prefer the concrete word whenever possible.
2020 note by John Bottomley
Use of the following words or phrases usually adds nothing to the meaning of a sentence or phrase: Totally, and also, basically, actually, literally, essentially, in terms of.
Similarly, unattractive phrases are in common use when there is a simpler, shorter alternative: Due to the fact (because), previous (earlier), kind of (somewhat), on account of (because), plus (and), lots of (many).
Never write the phrases ‘and/or’ or ‘each and every’, use one word or the other in both cases. Avoid the use of ‘he/she’ to meet conventions of gender, use the plural term or, if this not possible, use ‘he or she.’
Misused words and phrases
LANGUAGE suffers when words and phrases are overworked, but it suffers more when words and phrases are altogether misused. Here are a few examples:
BULLET and CARTRIDGE are often confused. Cartridges contain explosives. but bullets generally do not. In the unfired state the bullet (normally a solid piece of metal) is part of the cartridge. Behind the bullet is the explosive charge which gives the bullet its velocity and behind the charge is a small detonator. When struck by the firing pin of the weapon this ignites the charge. So don’t refer to exploding bullets when you mean cartridges. (There are such things as explosive bullets, but these are rarely used.)
CALIBRE refers to the internal diameter of the barrel of a gun or small arms weapon. It is a unit of measurement – not weight. Hence, it is wrong to write of high-calibre bombs.
CHRONIC is a word that is frequently misused. It does not mean severe and is, in fact, the opposite of acute. Chronic means lingering. People suffering from an acute illness are normally treated in a general medical or surgical ward. The chronic sick are often incurable and are cared for in a chronic sick ward. Often these are old people and are geriatric patients. (Geriatric relates to that branch of medicine which deals with the diseases of old age. The opposite is paediatric – i.e. relating to the branch of medicine which deals with illnesses afflicting children.)
Nurses are in charge of patients. Patients are in the charge of nurses. Do not confuse the two phrases,
Another phrase that causes a lot of trouble is under way. A ship weighs anchor, but it is then under way.
Confusion also occurs in treating words as synonymous when they are not:
ALIBI is not a synonym for excuse; it means being in another place at the same time.
AGGRAVATE is not a synonym for annoy. Aggravation makes things worse (literally, to make things heavy); things that annoy irritate people.
FLAUNT does not mean the same as flout. “ Dockers flaunt court order” means that the dockers are waving the order about in a proud or provocative manner. The word should be flout – i.e. to express contempt by word or act.
LAY is frequently confused with lie. Lay cannot be used intransitively; it must have an object (E.g. “Lay down your arms “). One cannot say: “Make the men lay down “. It must be: “Make the men lie down ‘. (The verb lie is intransitive, expressing a state of being.)
Confusion also arises in the use of the prepositions between and among. Between refers to two people; among to more than two. So don’t share anything between three people.
2020 note by John Bottomley
Some common English words are in danger of losing their meaning through determined and lazy misuse. Slang words like ‘cool’ will come and go but the original meaning of these words will always remain in use.
The fact that ‘amazing’ and ‘unbelievable’ are now used as synonyms for ‘good’ or ‘enjoyable’ in common speech should not trouble the journalist, nor should the annoying use of ‘like’ as a filler or interjection (care should be taken however in its use in quotes).
Similar but different
THERE are many pairs of words in the English language, where spelling or pronunciation is very similar but where meanings are entirely different. The pitfall here is not that the words are mistakenly thought to be synonyms, but that the unwary writer uses one in mistake for the other and thus produces an entirely different meaning. Most books on style or grammar give fairly comprehensive lists of these. The 18 pairs that follow are among those which are most frequently confused.
ALTERNATIVE (adjective) = an available substitute
ALTERNATE (adjective) = In turns, every other one
(In ‘American English’ alternate is used to mean alternative)
COMPLEMENT (verb) = something that completes or enhances
COMPLIMENT (verb) = praise
CONTINUOUS (adjective) = without break
CONTINUAL (adjective) = recurring ( with breaks)
CREDIBLE (adjective) = believable
CREDULOUS (adjective) = believing too easily
DEFICIENT (adjective) = short of, without
DEFECTIVE (adjective = in poor or damaged condition
DEPRECATE (verb) = express wish against or disapproval of
DEPRECIATE (verb) = lower in value (intransitive verb) or disparage (transitive verb)
DISINTERESTED (adjective) = impartial, with no financial interest, with no axe to grind
UNINTERESTED (adj) = without any concern for a particular thing
ENSURE (verb) = to secure that something will happen, to make safe or secure
INSURE (verb) of a thing or person = to make sure that damages are paid in the event of loss, injury or damage
EVERYONE (pronoun) of people = all, everybody
= one of a defined number group
= every single thing or person.
EVOLVE (verb) = work out or develop
DEVOLVE (verb-intransitive) = is handed down to
EXPLICIT (adjective) = stated in detail
IMPLICIT (adjective) = implied but not very firmly stated
FARTHER (adverb) refers to distance
FURTHER (adverb or adjective) refers to quantity or distance
FORGO (verb) = abstain from
FOREGO (verb) = precede
ILLUSIVE (adjective) = deceptive
ELUSIVE (adjective) = baffling, escaping from
INFER (verb) = deduce, conclude
IMPLY (verb) = Insinuate, hint
INGENIOUS (adjective) = cleverly contrived
INGENUOUS (adjective) = frank, open
ORDINANCE (noun) = a law or decree
ORDNANCE (noun) = military weapons of all kinds
STORY (noun) = account given of an incident
STOREY (noun) = horizontal division in a building
This list is not meant to be exhaustive. Watch for similar pairs and master their meanings. Only in this way will you achieve precision in the use of vocabulary.
MANY words that are used are superfluous. These may be adjectives (like new innovation or added bonus) or they may be prepositions.
Never fill a bottle half-full. That is nonsense. Half-fill it.
Often the use of redundant words sterns from the fact that the writer does not know the meaning of the word he is using.
E.g. comprise of (comprise = consists of) or raze to the ground (raze = completely destroy, level with the ground)
2020 note by John Bottomley
The following words in brackets are also redundant in: (as to) whether, considered (to be), (so as) to, yellow etc (in colour).
IT IS difficult to explain how some words-such as fabulous, empathy, charisma, escalation – have become fashionable.
Perhaps a writer of prominence uses one to illustrate a point or an attitude. Then it is taken up and used with meaningless frequency by journalists and broadcasters who are anxious to be considered smart or who have become too idle to develop their own vocabulary.
Ambience Ambivalent Archetypal Axiomatic Cachet Catalyst Charisma Conceptual Dichotomy Empathy Seminal
It has to be recognised, however, that language is constantly expanding and developing and it would be foolish to ignore what is both new and good in modern usage. But vogue words should represent a small part of the journalist’s stock in trade.
Used sparingly such words can brighten a writer’s style; used indiscriminately they tarnish it.
In deciding whether or not to use such words ask yourself:
I. Is it the exact word I need?
2. Is there an alternative which is just as valid?
3. If not, can it be understood from its context, or does it need some qualification to help the reader?
2020 note by John Bottomley
Vogue words should, by their very definition, fall in and out of fashion but the examples given above clearly were here to stay and their place in the lexicon of common use seems assured. Today there is an even longer list of trendy words which have crept into common use, often through the cliches of ‘business speak.’ They, too, may be here to stay but care should be taken not to fall into the trap of using these vogue words when a simpler alternative is available.
Consider the following words now used often enough to dilute their meaning or impact and note the preferable alternative: Feedback (response), iconic (long-established), utilise (use), viable (effective), artisan (homemade or rustic).
MANY foreign words and phrases have become an idiomatic and acceptable part of English usage. These words have achieved acceptance because they have become part of common speech and thought, despite their foreign origins They do a specific job in a way that English does not, and for that reason have become Anglicised.
For instance, where would we be without rendezvous and communique? They no longer sound strange and long ago passed into the style and tradition of our language
That we have made these words welcome alongside our own usage is another proof that English is flexible and sensible and can use the best of other languages. But the writer’s watchword must be discretion. Don’t use words borrowed from other languages when there is an ample choice in English.
E.g. Schmalz in figurative German has come to mean over-sweet or sentimental. Chic in French means stylish, elegant, smart.
The English equivalents used here are in no way inferior re the French or the German. So, why not use them?
Americanisms tend to be even uglier. Consider the use in the United States of the participle gifted where what is meant is given. The verb is to give, not to gift. However, gifted may be used as an adjective.
E.g. A gifted child.
N.B.- Never use the Latin-based donate or donated. Use give or given. Donation is permissible where you must use it, but prefer the word gift or contribution when it can be properly substituted.
The good writer ought not to be so hidebound by rules that he cannot accept new usage, but he should respect well-established English tradition and aim for harmony without affectation.
However, where a foreign word has become idiomatic in English do not be afraid to use it. Just be sure that the word does the proper job, and remember that if you do not know what the word means it is wrong to use it. You are not entitled to ask the reader to understand more than you do yourself. Readers in any case are rarely impressed by pretentious use of words, English or otherwise. Indeed they are more often irritated and annoyed.
The following is a list of words and phrases which may be regarded as acceptable in the right context (the accents should be omitted):
sine qua non
persona non grata
However, you should be very wary of using any of the following:
C’est la vie
DIFFICULTY sometimes arises in the use of plurals of foreign words. The fact that many of them have become common usage in English calls for a ruling on how to deal with their plurals, which occur in everyday use much less frequently than the singular.
Where there is no obvious confusion in the use or plurals in their original form. or where such use is not unharmonious or bizarre the original form is preferable.
There are however a number of such words which are commonly used both in speech and in writing, for which we have devised our own “anglicised” plurals. This has been done by consensus among writers of all classes, in order that confusion may be avoided, and ugly words excluded from our style.
It is not possible to classify such words, but the following list may be useful in helping to decide when to use the formally correct style, which may be less than clear and harmonious; and when to adopt a reasonable alternative.
|Appendix||Appendixes (medical, but appendices in books)|
|Index||Indexes (but indices when using specialist scientific language)|
|Medium||Mediums (for spiritualist clairvoyants)|
|Media (in specialist contexts such as advertising)|
|Prima donna||Prima Donnas|
The specific context of a story or article will dictate whether or not the formal and correct spelling is demanded. In general writing, however, words such as those listed above are acceptable, and indeed, preferable to their Latin or other plurals.
AT ALL times the writer has to make sure that words and phrases pay their way, but there is always the danger of over-working them. English is a resilient language but it can be worn out, and the most tired of all idioms is the cliche.
The cliche is the refuge of writers who are too weary to practise their craft with care and thought. And if, in searching for variety, they are too lazy to look further than the cliche, then there will be no variety in their prose at all.
The cliche is very difficult to root out. It slips into copy so easily. But writers will be on their guard if they have learnt to recognise a phrase that is already drooping with weariness.
The following are just a few examples:
A blast from the past
A game of two halves
A shot in the arm
A shot in the dark
Any shape or form
Armed to the teeth
As good as gold
As light as a feather
At the end of the day.
Blot on the landscape
Bring to a head
Chip off the old block
Clash of the titans
Clear as a bell
Cool as a cucumber
Cream of the crop
Cross the line
David and Goliath
Dead as a dodo
Draw a blank
Dyed in the wool
Fan the flames
Flash in the pan
Goes without saying
Horns of a dilemma
Interesting to note
Last but not least
Leave no stone unturned
Like rats in a trap
Luck of the draw
Moving the goalposts
New lease of life
Pie in the sky
Playing the field
Pool of blood
Read between the lines
Red letter day
Skating on the thin ice
Start the ball rolling
Take the bull by the horns
The blind leading the blind
The bottom line
The eleventh hour
This day and age
This point in time
Turn a blind eye
Some of these cliches contain redundant words, like “true facts”, “extra special”, but all are equally hackneyed and dreary by now. By avoiding them the writer will produce clearer and leaner language.
Strangely enough, moments of stress bring out trite remarks. Any reporter who has interviewed someone in a state of shock will have observed this.
But the reporter often makes the same mistake in drawing on dreary phrases just when he is trying to inject pace into bis copy. Consider the following hypothetical example (the over-worked words and phrases are italicised):
Firemen burrowed beneath the tangled wreckage of badly-damaged houses at Coventry today in search of residents several of whom it is feared may have been entombed when a crane toppled on to them from a multistorey building now in the process of erection on the Corporation’s latest high-density housing site.
Flashing lights converged on the affected houses in King William Street, Hillfields, as police, firemen and ambulancemen raced at breakneck speed to the scene of the disaster.
Meanwhile workmen from the building tore at the tortured metal of the crane with their bare hands to free those imprisoned beneath the twisted wreckage.
Three people were rushed to hospital in a waiting ambulance as the rescue workers toiled on at their grim task. Speculation was rife as to how many remained buried.
A spokesman described the scene as “like a battlefield”. It was an “absolute shambles”, he added.
Why is it that wreckage is always tangled? How does one rush in a waiting ambulance?
It is difficult to avoid the cliche when searching for the evocative word or phrase to capture the sense of urgency. But remember over-statement will destroy the very mood you are seeking to create.
AS THE nature of work and leisure changes, it becomes necessary to use severely limited words to express what we mean when dealing with difficult or specialist subjects.
If we do not have words within our range, which adequately express what we are trying to say, we have to invent new ones, or invest old ones with a further, and, perhaps, different meaning.
The only justification for the use of jargon in reporting is that the writer is unable to find a more suitable word. When dealing with the specialist subjects jargon cannot always be avoided. The danger is that once the writer has got to know a modest amount of gobbledygook, jargon will slip unnoticed into his style.
Jargon is most noticeable in scientific, government and legal handouts. It can often be excised painlessly, without changing the meaning. Where plain English can be substituted, this should be done. Indeed the reporter should “ translate “ jargon wherever he can do so without materially altering the sense of the original.
Far too many new and ugly words are creeping into English, words which do not add much to our understanding, or clear the lines of communication more readily.
The ugliest excrescences in our language are those growths which may be described as officialese; they really are malignant. E.g. Hospitalisation, meaning “sent to hospital”.
There are also ugly words in industry, but you cannot always avoid them. Consider the word containerisation. This has come in for criticism from a highly regarded stylist who recommends improved packing as a substitute. But this will not do, for containerisation has a precise meaning and is related to the transport industry, not to the packing industry. So, in your eagerness to root out jargon, do not break the cardinal rule of accuracy.
The industrial and commercial fields pose special problems. Many newspapers deal in some depth with these areas and their articles are read by people who are most discerning. For these people it is annoying if the reporter confuses packing with packaging or marketing with selling. The terms are not synonymous.
Again, be very careful with stories affecting industrial relations. Redundancy may appear to be a euphemism for sacking but there is a big difference between the two meanings.
In the first case the job has left the man; in the second, the man has left the job. In the first case the man has received compensation. In the second case there are overtones of stigma, suggesting incompetence or worse.
The first objective must be to achieve precision, so before you reach out for any handy synonym find out what the word really means. And then, consider the same criteria thz; were suggested in deciding whether to use vogue words c: not:
1. Is it the exact word?
2. Is there an equally valid alternative?
3. If there is no alternative, does the term need any further explanation?
Revised by John Bottomley 2020
About this training module
Ted Bottomley and Anthony Loftus were both journalists and training managers at the Express & Star group of newspapers in the UK. The group has given this site permission to publish the module (above), which is one of six taken from the book ‘A journalist’s guide to the use of English’, first published in July 1971 but still relevant today. You can find links to all six chapters below.
Ted Bottomley spent his whole working life in newspapers and more than 25 years in journalism. He was a former weekly newspaper editor, and had a long association with the National Council for the Training of Journalists. He was a member of the Publishing and Editorial Training Committee of the Printing & Publishing Industry Training Board. In the UK journalists still compete to try to win the prestigious ‘Ted Bottomley Award’.
Anthony Loftus was a high court reporter and film and music critic before becoming the Editorial Training Officer of the Express & Star group. He was a member of the Institution of Training Officers and the Association of Lecturers in Journalism, and the chair of the West Midlands Regional Training Committee of the National Council for the Training of Journalists.
You can read more about the book, the men behind it, and how it has been revised and updated by Ted Bottomley’s son, John, a newspaper journalist for 40 years.
The six chapters of ‘A journalist’s guide to the use of English’
- Chapter 1: The use of English
- Chapter 2: The essence of style
- Chapter 3: Word Power
- Chapter 4: Spelling
- Chapter 5: Syntax and sentence construction
- Chapter 6: Punctuation