The Constant Grammarian, Part 3: Thou Art Banished
As the old saying goes, you can take the girl out of copy editing, but you can’t stop her from judging you for spelling it “judgement.” This Canary blog series explores common errors and quick lessons I’ve gathered from years of experience as a former copy editor who made a living correcting other people’s mistakes. Don’t let these things happen to you!
Every editor has a Banishment List — a collection of words, phrases and expressions that ought to be exiled based on uselessness, triteness, falseness or just sounding dumb. Former New York magazine editor/current Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen’s Banishment List, what he called “Words We Don’t Say,” is among the most famous because of how well it holds up even 16 years after it was written. (I think we can all agree that zeitgeists are still as irritating as they were in the ’90s.)
According to Hugo Lindgren, who took over for Andersen in 1997, the list contained “words and phrases that Kurt found annoying and didn’t want used in his magazine.” Lindgren continues in this 2011 Times blog post, “It’s still a pretty useful list of phoney-baloney vocabulary that editors are well-advised to excise from stories.”
Andersen’s list — including groan-worthy words like queried, maven, dubbed, eponymous, hubby, authored, penned and many more — got me thinking about the language of public relations and how challenging it can be to communicate a client’s great story without getting yourself banished for using too many adjectives.
Here are two things to keep in mind when you write your next pitch:
1) You’re not so clever. We’ve all written about our dynamic clients who’re presenting hotly anticipated work to an elite crowd of influencers, right? It all sounds great until you realize that every publicist has written the exact same sentence and sent it off to an editor who’s seen those exact same words in a press release dozens of times. In January, Media Bistro’s PRNewser published a great list of PR jargon to avoid — and how. Best, simplest advice: “We know you’re excited, but maybe back off a bit.”
2) You’ve said that before. Even if you’re a great writer, you’re not perfect. Last week, Ragan.com pointed out a handful of blunders that are easily avoidable with a little forethought, from commonly misspelled words to dangling modifiers. Most interesting was the last entry on “personal tells”: “something you regularly do — without meaning to — that gives you away. … It might be the way you use words like ‘just.’” The article suggests identifying your “tells” and then “ruthlessly cutting them out” to keep your writing sharp.
In my case, once I realized that I started most emails with “Hi there!” — which, once I really thought about it, must annoy a not-negligible percentage of under-caffeinated, un-perky writers — I was able to back off a bit and stop startling my contacts with overenthusiasm.
Leave a comment: I’d love to hear about your Banishment List, your grammatical pet peeves, and the personal tells you’ve identified and sent into exile.
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