Style Kiboshes

Some years ago I read something like the following in a magazine for writers. The author is a newspaper editor, writing to the staff reporters. It points up my contention that the writing “rules” are so ambiguous as to be confusing at times, nonsensical at others times and inconsistent most of the time. I’ll print the way it was written and add my comments afterwards. You’ll be able to tell the difference!

The following is a very incomplete list of common newswriting mistakes. Most are culled from the AP Stylebook, which should be your bible on the subject. Another terrific resource is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Some are subjective; you may have a consistent local style that conflicts with these suggestions.

Good newspapers generally make up their own style manuals. Most are predicated on one or another of somebody else’s stylebook. The AP should be nobody’s “bible”. As for Strunk and White, the book is incomplete and inconsistent (as noted above), so why use it when you can create your own collection of “do’s and don’ts”?

Acronyms: Are a pox on the house of journalism. If they aren’t well known – FBI, NRA, etc. – try to write around them. And just forget the long ones; if it has more than four letters, just forget it.
If journalists don’t write out the full name, at least once, an acronym may not be that well known. I say, write it out once with the Acronym In Parentheses (AIP).

Ax: not “axe” per AP style.
A kibosh on the AP style! You can spell this chopping tool either way without having to confess your sin

Cagers, Hoopsters: Forget it. No more silly terms for basketball players.
Talk about putting the kibosh on a writer. What sportswriter can keep the job if they don’t use “silly” terms!

Catholic: The world’s religions are capitalized.
Agreed. But the word “catholic” has meanings besides the religion.

Dialogue: Not dialog
Another kibosh! We fought a war to get away from the British, which resulted in changing our “English” ways and spelling.

Dumpster: Is a brand name. Hence uppercase. Trash bin or garbage can are usually a better terms.
Like many trademarked names, this one also is often used without the uppercase. A garbage can is not a dumpster!

eleventh hour: Not 11th hour. Perfect example of something you can look up in the stylebook.
Sure, look it up. Then write it the way you prefer. Strange this comes from a newspaper, because they usually use numerals for numbers of ten and over. Fiction writers stay away from numerals.

“Everything from,” as in, “They sell everything from Pop Tarts to sledge hammers.” Well, what does that mean? Do they really sell everything? It’s just sloppy writing. I should know. I make this particular mistake all the time. I pledge to stop if you guys will as well.
And I’ll write in my own style (which usually includes “mistakes”. And stop calling everybody “you guys”! See? We all have our idiosyncrasies.

Feels/thinks: Nine times out of 10, when you write “feel” you mean “think.” They aren’t interchangeable to my mind so I change them a lot.
Please don’t tell writers what they mean, whether it agrees with your mind or not. (See Whether or Not below.)

Forego: means to go before, not to waive.
“Forego” also means to “abstain from” or “go without”… or “waive”. Both spellings – forego and forgo – seem to be interchangeable.

Funds: Usually, if not always, “money” is a better word. Less bureaucratic.
Talk about picky-picky. Maybe at this newspaper “money” is a better word, but there are occasion when “funds” works more accurately.

Heels/heals: If you use one or the other, know the difference.
I wonder if this heel knows how to heal a sore head. This is Simple Spelling, which a journalist should know backwards.

Horseshoes, fastball: Both are one word.
Really? Does a fast ball affect the eyes more than a slow ball? Back to the Sports Section, friend.

Idaho: Never abbreviated. See stylebook when you aren’t sure of abbreviations.
Oh, c’mon. Every state has an abbreviation – in two letters nevertheless. Idaho: ID.

Injuries/hurt: We’ve been through this one before. Your leg is injured. Your feelings are hurt. One is physical, the other mental.
I’ll tell you that a conk on the head hurts!

Jargon. It’s easy to take on the tenor of who ever you are talking to. Consequently stories with cops and bureaucrats use phrases like “negatively impacted” where harmed would do nicely.
Since when is “harmed” considered jargon?

Jibe/jive: If you use one, know what it means.
Obviously you don’t, or you’d explain it.

Lacrosse: one word.
Only in English.

Laundromat: I don’t know why the capitalization, that is just how you spell it, per stylebook.
Please don’t preach a “rule” you don’t understand. Find out!

Legislative titles: Consult the AP Stylebook, don’t guess. For instance, it would be “Sens. Patrick Leahy and Dianne Feinstein…”
My quarrel is with the newspeople who insist on using “Congressman” and “Congresswoman” when neither word is mentioned in the Constitution (style manual to federal legislators).

“member of the community: ” This is one of my least favorite constructions and it pops up again and again in government stories. Why can’t we just say “people” or “residents” or “citizens” or something.
Because a member of the community may not be a “resident” or “citizen”. Community is not synonymous with “city”.

More than/over: “More than” speaks to quantity. Over refers to spatial relations. (I have more than 10 marbles. The marbles are over the desk.)
I would suggest the marbles are “above” the desk. But yes, I am weary of seeing that we spend “over $10 million on trifles” when we actually are spending “more than $10 million on trifles”.

Mount: Spell out in all names, per AP, though some proper nouns may differ.
If there are exceptions, there is no “rule”! We in Washington State often use Mt. St. Helens.

OK, not okay, per stylebook.
Personal choice. Whichever you choose, be consistent.

Onsite: one word.
Only when used as an adjective.

Principal/principle: Know the difference.
Do you?

Teenaged: No. Look it up.
A teenaged child wouldn’t have to look it up.

U.S.: Use the initials only for the adjective form. If you are using it as a noun, spell out United States. Same for U.N.
Some editors love to write their own “rules”. This is one of them.

Whether or not: Don’t need the “or not.”
In most cases, you do need it.

12 noon: Redundant
Only if there is absolutely no question that it happened at 12 midnight.

3-year-old: Not three-year-old
Another choice situation. Perhaps you meant to say “Not three-years-old”.

Just before eleven, Holly checked her bag to be sure she had “the book” inside. Yup, it was there, just where she hid it this morning. “Maybe I can survive some crazy dude trying to tell us how great his life is, or some silly simpering female telling us to work hard and get jobs. All I want is…”

What did she want? The bell summoning all students to the auditorium left the thought wandering about her head.

Once settled in assigned seats, the principal took to the stage to introduce the guest speaker. “This morning, we have a special treat coming. Our speaker will talk about adventures she has had traveling with a group of actors, all over the world…”

“Yeah, real special treat. Good thing I brought my book,” Holly whispered to her friend.

“Shhh, this might be fun. Don’t you ever think about traveling?”

“Nah, my gramma tries to sell me on running around the country building houses – Homes For Humanity, or something. But I’m not interested.”

“What if your basketball team had to make a tour of Europe or someplace like that?”

“Oh yeah, like that’s going to happen.”

“Well, what if…?”

“Shhhh,” came the sound from a teacher two rows behind them. Holly sank down in her seat and grappled with her book bag to bring out the stashed book. She wrapped the paperback cover around so no one could see the title, Romance in the Rockies, turned to the page where she had turned down the corner, and prepared to read the forbidden text.

“When I put on my costumes, I change myself into another person, the character I’m playing…” came from the stage. Holly looked up to see a young woman, just a few years older than she was, wearing a stern looking woman’s suit: knee-length navy blue skirt and trim matching jacket, with a bright red vest peeking out. “This is my business outfit,” the young woman was saying. “In it, I feel as if I could run any company in the world.”

With one swift move, the speaker turned around completely and jumped out of her shoes. When she turned back to the audience, she was wearing a comfortable yoga suit and slippers. “Now I’m ready to show you some yoga poses or turn into a gymnast and show you some dance moves.”

Holly’s book fell to her side and she leaned forward. For the next forty-five minutes, she watched the speaker turn from a trim business woman into an athletic performer, into a boy taking part in the Civil War, an old woman remembering a lost love, a child refusing to obey her mother, and back into an old banker remembering the good old days. Holly sat fascinated, unmoving.

By the time the performer bowed grandly and bid the students a “happy day”, Holly knew what it was she wanted, what she was waiting for.

She turned to her friend as they stood applauding the performance. “That’s what I want to do. That’s exactly what I want to do. I’m going to talk to her and ask how she got started traveling the country, playing all these parts. I am going to be… an actress!”

“Sure… today. It’ll wear off; it usually does. Come on, it’s time for lunch.”

“No, really. I’m serious. I’m going to join Drama Club after school and I’m going to begin my training. You’ll see. When my name is up in lights…”

At home that evening, Holly was very quiet. She barely spoke during dinner and then, wonder of wonders, offered to load the dishwasher.

“What’s that thing you’re wearing on your head?” her mother asked. “It’s a do-rag, Mom. All us restaurant people wear them when we’re in the hot kitchen. Now hand me your plate and utensils.”

“What has come over her?” Val asked her mother.

“I heard they had a speaker at school today, talking about acting as a career. Must have hit a chord with your daughter,” Gramma offered.

Val let out a deep sigh. “Last week it was an airplane pilot; the week before horseback riding; and before that…”

“Welcome to the teenage years, my dear. She’ll try out all kinds of careers before she settles down. After all, you did.”

“Yes, but please don’t tell Holly.”

©Copyright 2013 Val Dumond



About Val Dumond

VAL DUMOND is a writer who is enamored with words and putting them together to tell stories. Trained as a journalist, she also managed an advertising agency and public relations business. She has taught writing classes for many years and now focuses on her own writing, editing for other writers, and helping writers publish their books. She owns Muddy Puddle Press, where most of her books are published. Her favorite writing theme is historical fiction: She has done what-ifs for Klondike Kate — Queen of the Yukon, and the unlucky pilot who in 1933 tried and failed to be the first to fly solo across the Pacific. She also did a what-if about the status of women at a bank where she once was overworked and underpaid. (Kate received a new love interest at the age of 70; the pilot received a second chance at his heart's desire 50 years later; and the women of the bank rebelled enough to improve their wages and place women on the Board of Directors.) See: SUGAR, SPICE, AND STONE; WHEN ROOSTERS FLY; and A LITTLE REBELLION…. But Val's grammar books are the ones that draw attention. Her latest, AMERICAN-ENGLISH—The Official Guide (written for writers), is a culmination of five other books about language she has written. This new book urges writers to develop their own writing style by creating their own Style Manual, composed of preferences among the many choices that American-English provides. In it, she uses examples of uses for the various parts of language and punctuation, sets aside a section that's full of writing tips, includes a glossary and index for easy access to language solutions.
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