Search Results for: cliches


‘Copy And Paste’ Can Help You Avoid Many Mistakes #

Now that everyone is clued in about CQ’ing, we want to talk about a simple step toward accuracy that some have been taking for years, but others aren’t.

Copy and paste.

We’re not suggesting anyone lift lines or phrases from others’ reporting. That’s plagiarism.

What we’re talking about is an efficient way to get some things right the first time.

And yes, again, we know that many have been doing this for a long time. But we’ve come to realize that others aren’t. So here goes.

Want to be sure you’ve got someone’s name correct? Asking the person to spell it for you is obviously an important step.

But if that’s not possible for some reason, find the person’s official bio or another authoritative record (such as a court case).

Then, copy the name and paste it into your script, Web story and any other piece of content where it appears.

For example, let’s say you’re not sure if it’s Corva or Korva. Go here, copy “Korva” and paste it into your script or story.

Definitely do this if you’re linking to that person’s official bio or to a court case he or she is part of. It is quite embarrassing to add such a link and still misspell the person’s name in your story because you didn’t copy and paste. We’ve done that, by the way.

Speaking of official bios, they usually have the person’s correct title and other key details. Those are also copy-and-paste opportunities.

The copy-and-paste method helps enormously when you’re dealing with accent marks that are critical to some non-English words. Remember all those Memmos about clichés? The é didn’t get into them because of a keyboard command. We just searched for the word cliché, copied it and pasted it in.

Numbers are prime examples of facts that benefit from a copy and paste. When the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the unemployment rate, for example, it’s simple to copy the number and transfer it to your story.

None of this eliminates the need to double- or triple-check such facts. There may be mistakes in supposedly official documents. There’s always the chance that your finger slipped and you didn’t copy all of a name, number or title. Take another look or two before sending a story on.

Tip: Create a file in Notepad of names, titles, accent marks and other verified facts that come up often in your reporting. (It’s good, by the way, to use Notepad as an interim step between copying a fact and pasting it into a story because that program can strip out any coding gibberish that might be hiding in the information.)

Update at 12:10 p.m. ET: A conscientious editor correctly suggests it’s important to emphasize that Web versions of court documents, police reports, bios and other official records are not always error-free. So, we repeat, “copy and paste” is helpful — especially when it comes to accent marks. But it is not foolproof and does not completely eliminate the need to double-check facts against other sources. We can, and should, pick up a phone or knock on a door to nail things down if there’s any uncertainty.

That said, it still makes sense to go here, copy “Korva” and paste it in.

(“Memmos;” July 5, 2018)


Let’s Keep The ‘Gate’ Closed #

Listening and reading from home the past few days, it was good to hear and see that we’ve treated mentions of “Spygate” as they should be — sparingly, in quotes and with attribution. We’ve made clear that it’s a label being used by one side to try to frame a debate.

There are, of course, other reasons to resist simply starting to call something a “gate.”

First, it’s a cliché. We fight clichés like there’s no tomorrow.

Second, as media columnist Rem Rieder put it, when the media tack “gate” on to a word it can come off as “lazy … so predictable … and really, really annoying.”

Third, to paraphrase the late Lloyd Bentsen, we knew Watergate, Watergate was a real scandal, this one (or the next one) may or may not turn out to be another Watergate. We don’t know yet. Let’s not elevate something to “gate” status without very good reasons.

This guidance doesn’t rule out some usages. “Deflategate” was, arguably, a word that let some air out of an over-inflated story.

But, we shouldn’t try to pump up other ongoing stories by joining the rush to attach “gate” to their names.

(Did you know? “Memmos” now live here.)

“Memmos;” May 30, 2018.


‘Under Fire,’ ‘Shoot Down’ And Other Such Clichés Are Banned #

We’ve said many times that clichés are to be avoided. With the Florida school shooting and the gun debate that has followed very much in the headlines, it’s more important than ever that we not fall back on phrases such as:

- “Under fire.”
- “Shoot down.”
- “Stuck to his guns.”
- “Smoking gun.”
- “Gunning for.”
- “Hired gun.”
- “With guns blazing.”
- “War zone.”
- “Kill the [bill, proposal, plan ... etc.].”

I’m sure you can come up with others that should not be heard or written.

(“Memmos;” Feb. 27, 2018)



It’s That Most Punderful Time Of The Year. Let’s Just Say Snow To The Clichés #

With winter barreling down on the nation’s heartland like a runaway freight train and the ho-ho-ho holidays upon us, here’s your annual lump of coal.

Don’t say or write these phrases unless your tongue is firmly frozen in your cheek:

– “ ‘Tis the season to …” No, it ’tisn’t.

– “Big chill …” Big whoopie.

– “ ‘Twas the night before …” It ’twas?

– “Brave the elements …” Only if you’re trekking to the Pole.

– “Over the river and through the woods …” It’s been a while since we rode a sleigh to grandmother’s house.

– “Hunker down …” Have you ever hunkered?

– “Bah, humbug.” Be miserly with your references to Dickens.

– “Old man winter (or Ol’ Man Winter) …” Let’s ban him and his cousin, Mother Nature.

– “White stuff …” Just say snow.

– “Oh, the weather outside is …” Don’t put that song in my head!

– “Jack Frost …” What, are we doing nursery rhymes?

– “It’s beginning to look a lot like …” Not that song either!

– “Deep freeze …” We get it, it’s cold.

– “Yes, Virginia.” No, Korva.

– “Nipping at our noses (or anything else) …” Nip that one in the bud.

– “Christmas came early for …” Really? Seems like it’s always on Dec. 25.

– “Enough is enough …” Yes, we’ll all be tired of winter at some point. Don’t remind us.

– “Jing-a-ling.” Jing-a-don’t.

– “First flakes …” See “superlatives and why they’re almost always wrong.”

– “A Christmas Grinch stole …” Every burglar doesn’t have to be be turned into a Dr. Seuss character this time of year.

– “Bone-chilling …” That’s the kind of look Korva just gave me.

– “Santa’s elves …” They’re everywhere! But not on our air!

– “Snowpocalypse …” What, are we The Weather Channel all of a sudden?

– “Snowmageddon …” See “Snowpocalypse.”

– “On the Xth day of Christmas …” The song is boring enough as it is.

– “Winter wonderland …” You like it so much? Fine, then you shovel me out.

(“Memmos; Dec. 8, 2017)


We’re Barreling Toward A Perfect Storm Of Clichés; Let’s Dodge That Bullet #

Since this is the calm before the storm, it’s time again to rain on everyone’s parade and suggest that we should avoid hurricane-related clichés like the plague.

Please remember that:

- There’s no law requiring that we say a hurricane is “barreling” toward shore.

- Hatches are probably not being battened in many homes.

- Mother Nature isn’t furious.

- Communities that escape serious damage didn’t dodge any bullets.

- Cats and dogs will not be falling from the sky.

- Pounding isn’t the only word to describe what’s going to happen.

- Not that many people peel back sardine cans these days; that’s a reference only grampa may get.

I’ve probably missed the boat and forgotten some. Feel free to stick a fork in any others.

(“Memmos;” Aug. 25, 2017)


Let’s Call A Truce On ‘War Of Words’ References #

We get it, the rhetoric is hot. Things are heating up. There’s a “war of words” underway.

But let’s can that phrase and other clichés. Our stories don’t need them and there are so many other compelling ways to describe what’s going on.

Also, we’re doing some excellent work. We don’t want yet another clanger of a cliché to be the thing listeners or readers remember.

(“Memmos;” Aug. 10, 2017)


‘Stella’ Banned; Clichés Frozen #

About that storm heading across much of the nation:

- We don’t use The Weather Channel’s names for winter weather events. So, please, don’t refer to this one as “Stella!”

- As we’ve said before, let’s bury all the worn-out winter clichés before they pile up. Those include:

-          Big chill

-          Brave the elements

-          Hunker down

-          White stuff

-          Old man winter (or Ol’ Man Winter)

-          Jack Frost

-          Deep freeze

-          Nipping at our noses (or anything else)

-          Enough is enough

-          First flakes

-          Bone-chilling

-          Snowpocalypse

-          Snowmageddon

-          Winter wonderland

(“Memmos;” March 13, 2017)


It’s The Most Cliché-ful Time Of The Year #

The handwriting is on the wall. There’s a perfect storm bearing down on us. We need all hands on deck or we’ll soon be in over our heads. If we don’t redouble our efforts, in quicker than a New York minute we’ll be swept out to sea by a tsunami of clichés.

It’s an uphill battle. We’re under attack from three sides:

- You’re going to be tempted to trot out the holiday classics. There’s a list here. Don’t unwrap them. If you’re thinking of saying “ho, ho, ho,’’ just tell yourself, “no, no, no.”

- Bone-chilling temps are spreading as Jack Frost nips our noses and the white stuff falls. As we’ve said before, bury the winter clichés.

- Politicians are pivoting and doubling down as the nation braces for the changes that will come after a new president moves into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Let’s take the moral high ground and keep the political clichés behind closed doors.

(“Memmos;” Dec. 9, 2016)


Thank You For Not Pounding Us With Hurricane Clichés #

We haven’t “hunkered down” or “battened the hatches.” We haven’t talked about the hurricane’s “wrath.” “Mother Nature’s fury” hasn’t come up. There haven’t been “calm before the storm” references. Only a few “lashes” have been whipped.

Perhaps we’ve had Matthew “barreling” toward a coast a few too many times.

But, overall, we seem to be avoiding hurricane clichés.

Thanks for not letting them rain down upon the audience.

(“Memmos;” Oct. 7, 2016)


Hold Your Fire If You’re About To Launch A War Metaphor #

- “Trump Fires Back Against Fallen Muslim-American Soldier’s Father.”

- “Donald Trump Targets Muslim Soldier’s Parents Over ‘Sacrifice’ Remark.”

- Donald Trump has been in a “war of words with the parents of a Muslim Army captain who was killed in Iraq.”

Those are headlines and copy from some stories in the media this week.

Three things come to mind:

1. It seems insensitive to use war or violent metaphors in stories that involve the death of Army Capt. Humayun Khan in Iraq and his parents’ high-profile comments about Trump. What’s going on between Trump and the Khan family is not a “war” when compared to what Capt. Khan experienced.

2. As we’ve said before, clichés are to be avoided at all costs — especially during election years, when they spread like wildfire.  In a Hall of Fame for clichés, war-related ones would be among the first inductees.

3. On any given day there may be an attack or battle in which people are killed. The juxtaposition of a headline or story about politics that is peppered with war clichés alongside news of real people dying in real warfare can make it look as if we’re not careful with our words.

Speaking of campaign clichés, two others phrases have been brought to our attention in recent weeks — “on the campaign trail” and “threading the needle.” You can probably think of others you’ve heard or read that sound tired. Let’s try to avoid all of them. The AP’s list of campaign clichés includes:

- Horse race
- Laundry list
- Pressing the flesh
- Barnstormed
- All those state nicknames

(“Memmos;” Aug. 2, 2016)


Couldn’t We Care Less About The Word ‘Pivot,’ Irregardless Of The Consequences? #

Scott Simon weighed in last month about the word “pivot,” which he’s tired of hearing in stories about politicians. “The hundredth time you’ve heard it bounce off the echo chamber of pundits and analysts, it begins to smack of smug insider-ness,” he said.

“Pivot” is a word we use a lot when discussing politicians and their shifting positions. It shows up in about 100 stories we posted or broadcast in the past year.

Scott has a point. We don’t have to use the same word every time. Just as each tornado does not have to “sound like a freight train,” every politician’s pirouette does not have to be called a pivot. Let’s try to use some other words. “Change” or “switch” or “shift” offer possibilities. Maybe it’s a simple “turn.”

Today’s other potentially pedantic points:

–  Just say “regardless.” “Irregardless” means “without without regard” and just doesn’t make sense.

–  If you’re “flaunting,” that means you’re proudly showing off. If you’re “flouting,” you’re showing scorn or contempt; rejecting or defying.

–  In almost all cases, you really mean to say “couldn’t care less,” not “could care less.”

– “Sink, sank, sunk.” “Spring, sprang, sprung.” Watch your tenses.

Redundancies and clichés are almost always wastes of time and space.  In the vast majority of cases we’re better off without them.

(“Memmos;” July 6, 2016)


Korva Discovers That Hailstones Come In ‘Grapefruit’ And ‘Softball’ Sizes; Diatribe About Clichés Averted #

We were prepared to issue another rant about clichés this morning after hearing during the 6 a.m. ET Newscast that hailstones ranging in size from “grapefruits to softballs” fell in Dallas on Monday. Can’t we find some other comparisons?

We were also prepared to complain that grapefruits and softballs are basically the same size, so there really wasn’t a “range.”

But, as she sometimes is, Korva was on to something. NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center has posted a “traditional object-to-size conversion for assessment and translation of severe hail reports.”

Based on the diameters (in inches), here are NOAA’s conversions:

0.50 … marble or moth ball
0.75 … penny
0.88 … nickel
1.00 … quarter

1.25 … half dollar
1.50 … walnut or ping pong ball
1.75 … golf ball
2.00 … hen egg

2.50 … tennis ball
2.75 … baseball
3.00 … tea cup
4.00 … grapefruit
4.50 … softball

Thus, it appears there is official paperwork that blesses weather-worn clichés about hail. And as you see, there’s official word confirming there is a (slight) range between grapefruits and softballs.

However, the fight against clichés will continue. Previous posts:

No, Virginia, It ‘Tisn’t The Season
Let’s Toss ‘Hat In The Ring’ Into The Cliché Round File
We Wave A Lot; Perhaps We Should Stem The Tide

Jonathan Kern’s thoughts about cliches are also worth rereading:

Cliches and shopworn phrases: “This decision comes in the wake of a ruling last week,” “the long-simmering dispute has provoked a storm of controversy,” “investors have been taken for a wild ride by the roller coaster stock market,” “public school teachers are leaving in droves” – these are just a few examples of the hundreds of modular phrases journalists use to write with a minimum of effort. It’s understandable: the reporters and news writers are under deadline pressure, and these are the phrases that spring to mind. The editor’s job is not to let them get away with it.

(“Memmos;” April 12, 2016)


Let’s Bury These Winter Clichés Before They Pile Up Like … #

Unless their tongue is firmly in their frozen cheek, the first person who uses any of these words or phrases this week has to shovel Korva’s long driveway:

-          Big chill

-          Brave the elements

-          Hunker down

-          White stuff

-          Old man winter (or Ol’ Man Winter)

-          Jack Frost

-          Deep freeze

-          Nipping at our noses (or anything else)

-          Enough is enough

-          First flakes

-          Bone-chilling

-          Snowpocalypse

-          Snowmageddon

-          Winter wonderland

Feel free to ban any other winter-related clichés that I missed.

Let’s not overdo some sounds, either. Snow shovels. Snow plows. Sleds. Etc.

Stay warm.

(“Memmos;” Jan. 20, 2016)


No, Virginia, It ‘Tisn’t The Season #

It’s that time of year again, so here’s a reminder:

If you feel a holiday cliché trying to tiptoe into your copy, please resist.

From last year’s post on this topic:

– “ ‘Tis the season to …” No, it ’tisn’t.

– “ ‘Twas the night before …” It ’twas?

– “Over the river and through the woods …” It’s been a while since we rode a sleigh to grandmother’s house.

– “Bah, humbug.” Be miserly with your references to Dickens.

– “Oh, the weather outside is …” Don’t put that song in my head!

– “It’s beginning to look a lot like …” Not that one either!

– “Yes, Virginia.” No, Korva.

– “Christmas came early for …” Really? Seems like it’s always on Dec. 25.

– “Jing-a-ling.” Jing-a-don’t.

– “A Christmas Grinch stole …” Every burglar doesn’t have to be be turned into a Dr. Seuss character this time of year.

– “Santa’s elves …” They’re everywhere!

– “On the Xth day of Christmas …” The song is boring enough as it is.

As we also said last year, you may be able to play around with these holiday evergreens. You might stand one on its head, so to speak.

But the guidance we’ve given about adjectives applies in most cases to clichés as well: if you see one, kill it.

In other words, say “no, no, no,” not “ho, ho, ho.”

(Memmos; Dec. 1, 2015)



Let’s Reduce Our Buts #

We’re obsessed with our buts.

At least, that’s what I’ve been told by more than one person in the newsroom.

The problem is that we try to insert too many of them into places they don’t belong. We use but to signal a conflict that doesn’t exist or when the conjunction should  be “and.”

I asked Paul Soucy, a veteran copy editor and former colleague, to send me a note he wrote for the staff at USA Today a decade or so ago. Here are excerpts from the memo he titled, “But. Why?

“One objection is mainly stylistic. An over-reliance on but — not just as a word but as a rhetorical device — results in a story that reads like a Ping-Pong match:

– “A, but B.

– “C, but D.

– “E, but F. …

“… all the way to the end.”

“The other major objection to but is linguistic. … Without getting too grammar-y, let’s just say that but is best used to illustrate contradiction, not just contrast. What comes after but should have some impact on what comes before but; it shouldn’t just be something different.

“We run a lot of sentences constructed like this one: ‘Chet has a red Ford, but Ned has a blue Toyota.’

“Why but? There’s contrast in this sentence, but no contradiction. The fact that Ned has a blue Toyota has no bearing whatsoever on the fact that Chet has a red Ford. … If there is no contradiction, there’s no need for but.

“We could just as easily say … ‘Chet has a red Ford and Ned has a blue Toyota.’ [Or] ‘Chet has a red Ford. Ned has a blue Toyota.’ “

Paul finished with three tips:

– “The troublesome buts will usually jump out at you. The best buts are invisible.”

– “Not sure whether a but belongs? Try just taking it out.”

– “If the sentence can be written without the but, perhaps it should be.”

If you’ve read this far, you may have a song in your head: Schoolhouse Rock’s “Conjunction Junction.”

This post also may have brought back memories of last year’s nagging about sentences that start with “so.” If you haven’t read that one, please do. We’re still “soing” a lot.

Other language issues we’ve droned on about include:

Begs The Question

Farther And Further


Imagined Elegance

Lay And Lie

With that, I’ll butt out.

(Memmos; Oct. 22, 2015)



Warning: This Post Contains Language That May Offend; Such Words Should Not Be Used In Podcasts Or On The Air #

There was a good discussion this week among correspondents and editors in the New York bureau about whether we can use some offensive language in podcasts that we can’t on the air.

The immediate question was this (NOTE: sensitive readers may find the next sentence objectionable):

Can we call an asshole an asshole?

The answer was “no,” we don’t want an NPR correspondent to say that on a podcast.

The process, by the way, worked. A correspondent consulted his editor. The editor consulted his boss and the Standards & Practices noodge. A case was made, consideration was given and a decision was reached that everyone understood.

This is a good time to ask: How do we feel about offensive language in podcasts?

As an organization, we respect our audience and “set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive.”

That line was originally written about what we say on the air, but we made clear three years ago when the Ethics Handbook was published that the bar applies to our other platforms as well:

“Online, if sound or text containing potentially offensive language has been approved for use by a Managing Editor or someone above that level, it too must be preceded by text (and in the case of audio, a verbal warning as well) advising the audience that what follows contains language some may find offensive.”

The environment is changing quickly. Some very popular podcasts do not worry about whether their language might offend. Their hosts’ conversational and sometimes profane ways of speaking are probably pulling in far more listeners than they repel.

We don’t want to seem boring and out-of-step. We do want to sound like America. But, the bar that NPR journalists need to get over before using such language themselves has to be set incredibly high — so high, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to get over.

We’re professional communicators at a major news organization. What we say and write in public reflects on NPR. No matter what platform we’re using or where we’re appearing, we should live up to our own standards. Yes, there’s more room in podcasts to let guests speak freely and for our journalists to be looser with their language. But it doesn’t mean NPR correspondents are free to use words or phrases in podcasts that they would never use on the air.

We should always be the news outlet that revels in language. There are so many wonderful words. Use them!

The most common offensive words and phrases are among the least creative ways of expressing yourself. They’re akin to cliches in the sense that they’re easy ways out. We pride ourselves on using words that pop out because they’re funny, provocative, rarely heard or just perfect. Again, use them!

You may be asking: Who needs to sign off on what is permissible language in a podcast, what does and does not need to be bleeped and what kind of warnings need to be given to listeners? The people to consult are: the deputy managing editors (Chuck Holmes & Gerry Holmes) and the standards & practices editor (Mark Memmott).

(Memmos; July 16, 2015)


Let’s Toss ‘Hat In The Ring’ Into The Cliché Round File #

Unless Sen. Marco Rubio doffs a fedora and flings it into flag-festooned circle of red, white and blue balloons as fireworks go off and a band plays the national anthem, there is no need today to say he “tossed his hat into the ring.”

In fact, how about if we try to make it through the next few weeks or months without saying anyone tossed their hat into anything? (Unless, that is, we’re reporting about boxing — where the phrase originated.)

Editors have said until they’re blue in the face that clichés are a symptom of weak reporting and writing.

Along with “hat in the ring,” here are some  other overused campaign clichés that the AP has singled out for elimination:

ahead of – before

rainbow colors – avoid red, blue or purple for the political leanings of states. Use Democratic-leaning, Republican-tilting or swing-voting, etc.

barnstormed – traveled across a state campaigning or campaigned across XYZ.

hand-to-hand campaigning – seeking support in face-to-face meetings with voters.

horse race – closely contested political contest.

laundry list – the candidate has ideas, proposals, etc.

messaging – the candidate’s pitch to voters.

pressing the flesh – shaking hands is preferred.

rope line – the physical barrier that separates a candidate from the audience. Instead, the candidate shook hands and posed for photographs with the audience.

state nicknames – avoid them in favor of the state name.

stump speech – campaign speech at a routine appearance (or standard or regular campaign speech)

testing the waters – considered entering the race or considered running for XYZ.

took his/her campaign to – specify what the candidate did.

veepstakes – the competition to be a candidate’s running mate.

war lingo – use criticized instead of attacked, or choose a better verb to describe what the candidate is doing, i.e., challenging, doubting, etc. Also avoidable: launch an assault, take aim, open fire, bombard.

war chest – use campaign bank account or stockpile of money.

white paper – a document of policy positions distributed by a campaign.

Related: Poynter’s “15 political clichés journalists should avoid.”

(Memmos; April 13, 2015)


In The ‘Vast Majority’ Of Cases, Are We Sure We Should Use Those Words? #

What do you think when you hear the phrase “vast majority?”

Here are some of the answers I got today from 15 correspondents, hosts and editors on the third and fourth floors:

– “More than two-thirds.”

– “At least three-quarters.”

– “Above 90 percent.”

– “Nearly all.”

– “A lot.”

– “A @#$%load.”

– “A boatload.”

– “A phrase that shouldn’t be heard.”

– “An amorphous phrase that means ‘we don’t know how many for sure, but we think it’s a lot.’ ”

The Urban Dictionary, meanwhile, offers a definition that begins with this: “Possibly the most over-used, tired and tautological phrase ever to have survived in the English language.”

Thankfully, a search indicates that the phrase “vast majority” doesn’t make it into our stories every day.

But it was still heard 202 times in the past year. The odds are a bit better than 50-50 that it will be said in the next 24 hours.

That’s a problem.

After all, since we can’t seem to agree on what the words mean or when they should be put together, it seems reasonable to conclude that listeners aren’t sure either. What’s more, attaching the word “vast” to “majority” is a judgment call. Who’s saying it’s a “vast majority?” What’s the proof? Maybe it’s just a “significant” majority. Or a “sizeable” one. Or just a majority.

When possible, the best course is to use facts rather than just the “vast majority” label. Establish, for example, that
“92 percent of those surveyed agreed” and then, perhaps, talk about what such a “vast majority” means.

This brings to mind other guidance about:

Avoiding clichés.


Killing adjectives.

Precision writing and editing.

Words that get abused.

Note: My thanks to listener/reader Anne Sovik for suggesting we look into “vast majority.”

(Memmos; March 18, 2015)


What Did We Say About That? A Guide To The 2014 ‘Memmos’ #

What did Mark annoy us about in 2014? Here are the year’s “Memmos” divided into categories:


“Don’t sign, don’t advocate, don’t donate.”

“We don’t participate.”


How we make them and display them, Part I.

How we make them and display them, Part II.

Poynter’s “most notable errors.”

They’re at the bottom of our pages.

“Why do we get some things wrong?” Our most common errors.


A well-done poll.

John Burnett’s completeness.

David Folkenflik’s transparency.

Panda triplets!

The Bill Cosby interview.

The Eric Holder scoop.

The 16-year-old in a diaper and why the photo of him was so important.



Medical conditions.


– “Victims” vs. “survivors.” (Particularly in cases of sexual assault.)


Adjectives and why we kill them.

“Alleged,” “accused” and “suspected.”

“Ambush” and “assassinate.”

“Begs the question.”

Being conversational.

Cliches in general.


Ebola; infectious or contagious?


“Farther” and “further.” There’s a difference.

“Garnish” vs. “garnishee.”

Holiday cliches.

“Imagined Elegance.”

– “Immigration” (and related terms).

“Islamic State,” then ISIS.

ISIS and al-Qaida; how to refer to their links.


“Lay” vs. “lie.”

“Persian Gulf.”

“Reticent,” “reluctant” and other words we abuse.


“Taps” and why not to talk over it.

Teenager, I.

Teenager II.

Torture I.

Torture II.

Torture III.

“The” vs. “thee.”

The word “war.”

“Victims” vs. “survivors.” (Particularly in cases of sexual assault.)

Washington’s football team.


It’s not an English-only thing.

Latest “NPR policy on use of potentially offensive language.”


AP goes short.

AP’s unfortunate “crash lands” tweet.

Guidance for Election Day.

There is no privacy on the Web and retweets may be endorsements.

When you can and can’t tweet about customer service.


Anonymity and why “first-name-only” must be discussed and explained.

First names on second reference.

More on first names on second reference.

Why we didn’t name the Ebola patient.




Advice on how to fully inform people before we interview them.

How to explain why we don’t do that.


Attribution I.

Attribution II.

An “abundance of caution” can save us sometimes.

Call “the other side” of the story.

Check things out, even our own reporting.


“For Peat’s sake,” check back with key characters before broadcast.

Get names (why we don’t put random voices on the air).

Good grammar.

It’s “Daylight Saving,” Not “Daylight Savings.”

Minor consent (and the form that needs to be signed).

Naming minors.

Never assume.

Never show stories to sources.

Online credits.


Plagiarism is “the offense that keeps on repeating.”

Precision writing and editing.

You can’t always believe what you remember.

We work in plain sight.

We’re cynical, not skeptical.


We’ve got your guidance right here.

(Memmos; Dec. 29, 2014)


No, It Tisn’t The Season #

You know you’re going to want to do it. The temptation will be enormous.

With Thanksgiving coming up it’s time to remind everyone: Please go easy on the holiday clichés. They tend to build up like the snowdrifts in Buffalo, and we don’t want that.

– “Tis the season to …” No, it tisn’t.

– “Twas the night before …” It twas?

– “Over the river and through the woods …” It’s been a while since we rode a sleigh to grandmother’s house.

– “Bah, humbug.” Be miserly with your references to Dickens.

– “Oh, the weather outside is …” Don’t put that song in my head!

– “It’s beginning to look a lot like …” Not that one either!

– “Yes, Virginia.” No, Korva.

– “Christmas came early for …” Really? Seems like it’s always on Dec. 25.

– “Jing-a-ling.” Jing-a-don’t.

– “A Christmas Grinch stole …” Every burglar doesn’t have to be be turned into a Dr. Seuss character this time of year.

– “Santa’s elves …” They’re everywhere!

– “On the Xth day of Christmas …” The song is boring enough as it is.

Can you play around with these holiday evergreens? Stand one on its head, as goes another cliché? Maybe. Tis the season for miracles, after all.

But let’s see if we can make these holidays mostly cliché-free.

Ho, ho, ho,

Scrooge McMemmott

(Memmos; Nov. 20, 2014)



Peruse Or Peruse? You Can Read These Notes Both Ways #

We’ve asked listeners, users and the Twitter crowd (#wordmatters) to tell us about the grammar mistakes, mispronunciations and misuses of words and phrases that bother them.

They’ve given us an earful (about clichés as well). I’ll pass some along occasionally. For instance:

“@MarkMemmottNPR @MorningEdition peruse is misused often. Many think it’s synonymous with skim.”

The word’s original meaning is to read “in a thorough or careful way.” Also, to “examine carefully or at length.” (Oxford Online) British dictionaries have not wavered from those definitions.

American dictionaries, such as Webster’s, have added this in recent years: “loosely, to read in a casual or leisurely way.” That sure seems like the opposite of the word’s original meaning.

A word with meanings that seem to be in conflict; just what we need.

What to do? We know that definitions can change over time and we do want to sound conversational. But we also don’t want anyone to wonder about what we’re saying. In this case and others involving words that run the risk of causing confusion here’s some guidance: Substitute a word that’s more precise.

For example, if you mean that someone has “studied” some records, use the word studied. If you mean they’ve just given the records a “cursory” look, say that.

As always, feel free to peruse* the Ethics Handbook and  other “memmos” for additional guidance on language.

Related note: Most of the #wordmatters comments we’re getting are not complaints about what people have heard on NPR or read on The majority of the messages are about things people hear in daily conversations and read on all types of media.

One phrase that’s been brought up quite often is “could care less.” Many people say that when what they really mean is that they couldn’t care less.

A search by the Library staff indicates that NPR hosts and correspondents have only gotten that phrase wrong twice in the past year. We do care about about getting things right and it shows.

*Original meaning, of course.

(Memmos; Nov. 18, 2014)


Precision Writing & Editing: 5 Timeless Tips #

Last week, a friend who’s been reading these “memmos” sent me an email that he’s held on to for 13 years. The message was written by Hal Ritter, a former managing editor of the Money and News sections at USA Today and until earlier this year the business editor at The Associated Press.

The topic: “precision editing.”

I called Hal to get his OK to share some excerpts. There are lessons here for reporters, producers and editors — whether they’re working on pieces for the Web or the radio. Just substitute some words — “listeners” for “readers;” “correspondents” for “reporters;” “pieces” for “stories” and his advice works well. It could easily be a note about “precision writing”:

“1. First, precision editing means getting it correct. Grammar, punctuation, usage and syntax are perfect. No rule is broken — or even bent. … Every day, I see verbs that don’t agree with their subjects, pronouns that disagree with their antecedents. … I see words that are misspelled. … I see prepositions used as conjunctions. And on and on and on. …

“2. Second, precision editing means squeezing every unnecessary word out of a story. I swear I can delete 15% of the words in some stories and not lose a thing. Word editing means when you see ‘away from,’ you delete ‘away.’ ‘Gathered together,’ delete ‘together.’ ‘Fell down,’ delete ‘down.’ ‘Burned up,’ delete ‘up.’ ‘In order to,’ ‘in order for,’ delete ‘in order.’ And many words, like ‘new,’ you can delete almost every time you see them. You can’t build an ‘old’ building. If you go through a story before sending it to the copy desk and challenge every word, you’ll be amazed how many you can delete. And how much crisper the writing is when you’re finished.

“3. Third, precision editing means writing for readers, not for sources. And that means getting rid of jargon or insider expressions. Language from Wall Street or Capitol Hill or Hollywood or the locker room that our readers won’t understand. Or retaining the jargon and explaining it. Completely and conversationally. Readers will thank you for doing that. Sadly, I’ve heard some reporters say that their sources will make fun of them if the reporters don’t write the way the sources talk. I say to hell with sources. Readers are the only people who matter at USA TODAY. Plus, those sources are wrong. The newspaper that does the best job of explaining jargon, completely and conversationally, is The Wall Street Journal. And The Journal‘s readers are likely to be well-versed in the jargon to begin with. A seventh-grader can read business and financial stories in The Journal and understand them.

“4. Fourth, precision editing means eliminating clichés and hackneyed expressions. Most of the time. I added that qualifier after rereading this week three wonderful pages that [Theodore M. Bernstein, long-time assistant managing editor of The New York Times] devotes to clichés [in The Careful Writer - A Modern Guide to English Usage]. Bernstein’s last sentence on clichés is this: ‘The important thing, however, as must be clear by now, is not to avoid the cliché, but rather to use it only with discrimination and sophistication, and to shun it when it is a substitute for precise thinking.’

“5. Finally, precision editing means careful attention to sentence structure. I believe that clear writing is 90% about sentence structure. What’s the best sentence structure? Simple. Subject, verb, object. One independent clause. An active verb. Little or no punctuation. The worst sentence structure? Complex. 40, 50 or even 60 words. Several dependent clauses. Lots of punctuation.”

My thanks to Hal for permission to share all that.

Someone may be about to suggest that the rules are different for radio. I would suggest that’s wrong. For one thing, USA Today‘s best stories at the time of Hal’s note were much like NPR’s and about the same length. The writing was tight and conversational. USA Today writers and editors would sweat over how many characters — not just words — they could fit on a line. Think about how much effort goes into shaving seconds off some of the pieces that NPR produces.

Also, a reading of Jonathan Kern’s Sound Reporting supports my case. Here’s some of what Jonathan says about “how to sound like a real person”:

– “First and foremost, say your sentences before you write them down; or at the very least, say them out loud after you’ve written them.”

– “Don’t use words on the radio you wouldn’t say at other times.”

– “Don’t use syntax that does not occur naturally.”

– “Use present participles — the ‘present progressive’ tense — to describe things that are going on at the moment.”

– “Don’t paraphrase actualities as if you were reading a quote from the newspaper.”

– Keep your sentence structure simple.”

– “Watch out for grammatical errors.”

– “Recognize clichés and look for alternatives.”

– “Avoid unnecessary jargon, acronyms and initialisms.”

– “Check for typos, missing words and other clerical errors.”

For those who want to read even more about proper usage, The New Yorker this week offers a piece on “Steven Pinker’s Bad Grammar.”

(Memmos; Nov. 4, 2014)


Don’t Be Reticent Or Reluctant About Flagging The Words We Overuse, Misuse Or Otherwise Abuse #

We’ve previously discussed how we:

Wave a lot.

Go further when we should go farther.

Can’t stop begging the question.

Lay around when we’re really lying.

Are a bunch of so-and-sos.

Each of those “memmos” has prompted emails from reporters and editors who have their own pet peeves about words or phrases that we mess up or use too often. Among the things that really bother some folks:

– “In the wake of.” How about “after” or “following?”

– “Ordinary people” and “real people.” As opposed to what?

– “Dude.” There’s really only one.

– “Translator” when we should say “interpreter.” (This is actually more of a pet peeve among some in our audience. We get an email or two a week about it. If there’s a person standing beside you who’s telling you what someone else is saying, call that person an interpreter.)

– “Reticent.” It means “habitually silent or uncommunicative; disinclined to speak readily; reserved; taciturn” and “having a restrained, quiet, or understated quality.” (Webster’s) That’s not the same as being “reluctant,” but in the vast majority of cases we seem to think the words are interchangeable.

– “Confined to a wheelchair” and other phrases that imply a judgment about someone’s condition. A simple substitute: “Uses a wheelchair.”

Words and phrases matter, of course, because we’re in the business of writing and telling stories that are compelling and clear. Getting them wrong and relying on “cliches and shopworn phrases,” as Jonathan Kern has written, just get in the way of our mission.

Feel free to send along your pet peeves. We can highlight them in upcoming notes.

(Memmos; Oct. 28, 2014)


We Wave A Lot; Perhaps We Should Stem The Tide #

Do a search and you’ll see that we’ve recently talked or written about:

– “A wave of” foreigners joining the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

– “A wave of” new voter ID laws.

– “A wave of” protests across the nation following the death of Michael Brown.

Those examples are from the last few weeks. In the past year, according to the Library, we’ve ridden the “wave” phrase at least 71 times on the air. To be sure, there have been many times we’ve talked about “a wave of” your smartphone or “a wave of” water. But there have also been waves of attacks, of violence and of refugees, to cite a few. A search of the phrase “a wave of” on, which brings in blog posts , other Web text and guests’ language, produces 154 results from the past year.

A crusty editor who hates clichés once told me that they do occasionally have their place if there’s just no better word or phrase to use. But as Oxford Dictionaries warns, clichés “tend to annoy people, especially if they’re overused.”

Chip Scanlan, then with Poynter, is among many who have wryly observed it’s wise to “avoid clichés like the plague.”

Former Detroit Free Press development editor Joe Grimm has suggested they be used sparingly and only “when they fit the story precisely.”

What should you do if you feel a wave (or some other cliché) coming on? First, stop and ask if it’s really a phrase that applies to the situation. Then, as with our guidance about avoiding labels, consider substituting a fact. How many foreigners have joined ISIS? How many refugees have crossed the border? How many bombings have there been?

Now that I’ve opened this can of worms, I’ll stop fanning the flames, give it a rest and call it a day.

(Memmos; Oct. 22, 2014)


Reminder: It’s Best To Avoid Labeling People Who Have Medical Conditions #

I’ll say it before others do: Sometimes, in the tight confines of a headline or in a Newscast spot, it’s almost impossible to fit in any extra words and not rely on “labels.”

But as we’ve discussed before, it is best to avoid them — especially when dealing with medical conditions.

For example, it’s better to say someone “has been diagnosed with schizophrenia” rather than “is a schizophrenic.” Or, “she is being treated for anorexia” rather than “she is an anorexic.” Or, “he is diabetic,” instead of “he is a diabetic.”

Why do such small differences in wording matter? The Science Desk has been careful about such usages for years. But as we hear from listeners and readers each week about stories from other desks, people feel as if we’re reducing someone to a word when we label him or her. Since one of our core values is respect, we should be sensitive to those concerns.

We’re also committed to accuracy, of course. We don’t want to unintentionally give the impression that someone is “only” defined by a medical condition.

Related notes: As The Associated Press says, it’s a good idea to “avoid using mental health terms to describe non-health issues.” For one thing, those terms can be clichés: To say one thing is “a cancer on” something else, for example, is a rather tired expression. The AP also reminds us that it’s best to “avoid descriptions that connote pity, such as ‘afflicted with, suffers from or victim of.’ ”

As always, it’s best just to say what someone has.

(Memmos; Oct. 16, 2014)


Weak language is sometimes a symptom of weak journalism. #

In his “Editor’s Manifesto,” Jonathan Kern reminds us of some of the most common mistakes we make in our writing. Be wary of pitfalls like the ones Jonathan cites here; they sometimes indicate that our reporting or our grasp of a story isn’t as robust as it should be:

  • Passive voice: “The Bush administration is taking a hit for its position on global warming.” Who’s doing the hitting? We can’t picture the players if they’re not named.
  • Cliches and shopworn phrases: “This decision comes in the wake of a ruling last week,” “the long-simmering dispute has provoked a storm of controversy,” “investors have been taken for a wild ride by the roller coaster stock market,” “public school teachers are leaving in droves” – these are just a few examples of the hundreds of modular phrases journalists use to write with a minimum of effort. It’s understandable: the reporters and news writers are under deadline pressure, and these are the phrases that spring to mind. The editor’s job is not to let them get away with it.
  • Generalities: Keep a sharp eye out for phrases like, “Most people have never heard of,” “Many people think,” “The conventional wisdom is,” and their ilk. They are often simply wrong, and rarely convey much real information.
  • Vague attributions: Vague phrases like “officials say,” “analysts say,” and “critics say” suggest sloppy reporting. Editors should push reporters to be as specific as possible.
  • Jargon and overcomplexity: Part of our job is to make the complex clear. Falling back on technical language might be a sign that we don’t yet understand something well enough to distill it clearly for our audience.