Writing wrongs (pass the sic bag)

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By CYN TACKS, Grandma of Grammar

Veteran nationals sub Don Johnston, now reclining in grumpy retirement in leafy Guildford, has become irritated at repeated instances of ancient journalese now so frequently re-used by today's young beginners in newspapers and other media.

That the guilty are the new-brand media studies college graduates and some even NCTJ-qualified fills him with horror, so this dinosaur of the desk is listing some of the traditional subs' pet hates absorbed during  his more than half a century of hacking at the wordface.

Are you sitting uncomfortably?

Take ‘however’. If you use this word, use it properly in context. It is a clausal pause in a conversation in the pub but not in journalism. Instead, use "But" in starting a sentence. OK in OED, official. Treat the word “though” similarly.

In the pub, never ask for “the same again”. That is impossible. Cannot happen. “Similar” is accurate. “Another one?” is what a wife asks, usually angrily.

The "firing line" is a military term for soldiers firing at an enemy. In a news story, if people are targeted, they are "in the line of fire".

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The "Marie Celeste" is part of the title of a tale by Arthur Conan Doyle, a story he later regretted writing. The American brigantine's name was Mary Celeste.

Don had many a blue-pencilled and equally blue-worded exchange over the years with reporters, feature writers and columnists who would use "not to mention", "it goes without saying", "needless to say" and "But one thing is certain,". What was certain was that these travesties of journalism got chopped.

"The body was found in a pool of his own blood". Really? Not alligator blood? How extraordinary. 

“The murder was carried out”. How heavy was it? Who carried it? Wasn’t it committed? “The operation was carried out”. Not performed? This is a silly carry-on.

“A brutal murder...”. How many gentle ones have been recorded?

“The murder took place”. Whose place did it take? Did anyone object to this displacement? How about “The murder, in”.

“The attack. In broad daylight”. Any attack known to be recorded in narrow daylight?

“It emerged yesterday”. Exactly what was “it”? Emerged from what?

“Decimate” means one in ten, or 10 per cent.  It does not mean “devastate”.

The proper usage is “bored with”, not “bored of”.

This is too much, too often. Before using “too”, ask yourself, how many would be enough?

The most widely misused qualifier is the word “only".

Come on, you word-worn old-timers. Fascinate our esteemed Lord Drone with the frequent follies you’ve had to fix.

STUART PATRICK, the distinguished veteran Fleet Street legal eagle, now happily retired in France, commented: 'I dislike obits saying "he died following...". Shouldn't have been following whatever it was: he obviously was not up to it.

'Also, interviewees on the radio who begin answers with: "So..." where there is no causality whatsoever.

'Mind you, I remember Don making us both cups of tea and saying to me: "Yurrs is the nearest one.” 

I replied: "Do you mean 'the nearer one' Don?" 

"Oh noo, and Stuart of all people!”

'Again, it is an Article of Faith that when Wikipedia is cited as a source we know the claim has no substantiation. I forget the number of times I said to a journo: “Where did you get that from and please don’t tell me Wikipedia.”

'Apparently, the worthy burghers of St Petersburg decided to erect a statue to Jean-Francois Thomas de Thomon, a French architect who designed several of the city’s finest buildings in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Unfortunately, the sculptor used a picture of Thomas Thomson, former Regis Professor of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow who had had no connection with the city. It was erected in 2011 but the mistake has just been discovered.

'The sculptor, Alexander Taratyniov, took the picture from Thomas de Thomon’s Wikipedia entry, where it had been published in error.

'He explained, no doubt ruefully: “We were confident the internet would give us the correct information”.’

1:  Why do people search with fine toothcombs? (Thinks: Me, I very rarely comb my teeth.)

2:  Why are hailstones in storms "of tropical intensity" always the size of golf balls?

3:  Why, oh why do so many letters to the editor begin "Why,  oh why..."  Some even add "...in this day and age.


Could "at this present time" refer to Christmas? Does "raking over the evidence" involve a gardening cover-up? It's an "intriguing" theory or have I just lost the plot?

"Nice" is plain sloppy. What's wrong with pleasant, tasty, etc. Perhaps it's "too good to mention", so why do so or could it be "almost unique”.


I think it’s time we had an overarching inquiry and subsequent root and branch reform to put a stop to the way our language is being mangled. Whoever heads the inquiry should leave no stone unturned in seeking out the culprits guilty of spouting clichés, jargon and gobbledygook. Of course they will deny any wrongdoing. 

How many times have we heard that from big names or their lawyers protesting their innocence? Let me make this quite clear, the use of such tedious talk is becoming a bore. I fear it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Also . . . Sports journalists and broadcasters are often guilty of writing and uttering clichés, but the news gatherers who feel so superior to the games room hacks, especially political commentators and the people about whom they write, would take the sports department into an extra time shootout if it came to the crunch (there’s another one!) Here are some of the words that should earn yellow cards for every politician or correspondent who continues to trot them out: 

Hearts and minds; joined-up government; break the deadlock (sport too); fall on his sword; hat in the ring; begin in earnest (where is that?); singing from the same hymn sheet; not fit for purpose; draw a line under or in the sand; going forward; starting to answer an awkward questions with ‘so’ and a politician’s foggy reply: ‘I’m very clear on this’. Why does everything arrive by raft these days, such as measures? And we are where we are. Where we are right now is going to hell in a handcart!

Another rant: Why do the hacks or snappers yell questions to politicians entering or leaving 10 Downing Street? They know they won’t get an answer.

More gripes from Don Johnston

Send your grammatical grievances to dailydrone@mail.com 

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre