Writing – Phrases to Avoid

(To give credit where credit is due, this list was originally published on Newswriting.com several years ago.  Newswriting.com is currently taking a break.)

Aftermath –  Print words don’t belong in spoken copy. Do you know anyone who says “aftermath” in normal conversation? When we were kids, aftermath came recess.

Allegations“I deny the allegations…” This bloated substitute for “claims”, “charges” or “accusations” is as bad as “allegedly”. Nobody in real life uses it. Unless they’ve been watching too much TV news.

Amid, Amidst – Print words. Newspapers may get away with them, as substitutes for  “in the middle of”, but we write for the ear… and any ear that hears “amidst” will soon be telling the brain to click the remote.

Area residents. “Shhh, Tommy, don’t play the drums so loud, you’ll wake the area residents!” Normal people don’t refer to their neighbors this way. Why should we?

Arraigned – Yes, it’s a formal court procedure and you don’t want to mess with it.  Just one problem. You may know what “arraigned” means, but Joe Sixpack thinks it means he needs an umbrella. Courtroom stories are complicated enough. Don’t make things worse with terminology designed by, and intended for bureaucrats. Ditch the term. Use the EXPLANATION of the term instead. Say the guy appeared in court. Say he faced a judge. Say he was formally charged. Say how he pleaded. Don’t say “arraigned”.

Botched Robbery, Robbery Gone Bad – Like “unsuccessful suicide”, this is just plain silly. If some punk tries to rip off a 7-Eleven, and the cops show up, so he takes hostages, that’s not a “robbery gone bad”. It was bad at the start. We don’t need to feel sorry for the idiot who “botched” his chance to empty the cash register and decided to become a kidnapper. Let’s just say what happened, and leave the judgments to the folks watching.

Campaign Trail –  What, exactly, is a campaign trail, anyway? Are there covered wagons? Does Campaign Cookie rustle up Campaign Grub? Do folks munch Campaign Trail Mix as they warble yippie–i–o–ca–yay through the precincts? Why do writers feel a compulsion to use this terrible term? Just say where the candidate is, and get on with it.

Clinging to LifeNarrow escapes, traffic accidents and serious illnesses seem to generate Cliche Hell (more groanable examples: Fighting For His/Her Life”; “Lucky To Be Alive). Once upon a time, this stuff may have communicated a true sense of urgency. Now it just communicates a sense of bad writing. Use them on a friend and he’ll probably laugh in your face and say, “Who are you, Ted Baxter?”

Death toll – A silly way to refer to the number of dead. Does someone ring a heavenly bell every time a person dies? Does a heavenly nickel get dropped in the fare box on some celestial highway? Maybe “up there”. Down here we speak plain English.

Details Are Sketchy – How many times have you seen this one on a breaking story (or its ugly cousins, “It’s Not Known”, and “It’s Not Clear”)? These are highfalutin’–yet–silly terms. And they all mean the same thing. You don’t know everything just yet. What’s wrong with saying that?  “We don’t have all the details yet, but….”? Be honest with people. Frame it in the positive if you wish: “Here’s what we know…”

Estranged – Yes, this is a convenient little term for not-quite-divorced husbands and wives. Trouble is, no one in real life ever says, “Peg and I can’t take it anymore. We’re estranged.” No one has a “trial estrangement”. If a couple is separated, say so.

Famed “Mommy, mommy, I just saw somebody famed over there!” When did “famous” become a dirty word?

Firestorm of Controversy –  Whoa! Get out the flame-retardant umbrellas! Non-conversational, and bad hyperbole, all rolled into one. Just explain what the controversy is, without the brimstone.

First leg of –  Whether it’s a mission on the space shuttle, or a Presidential visit to the Middle East, news writers can’t seem to resist breaking down the trip into “legs”, instead of parts, countries, orbits or what have you. There’s only one place where this phrase belongs: “The first leg of the centipede appears broken”.

Fled on Foot – Coptalk for “ran away”. No cop speak allowed.

Flurry Of Activity –  Not unless you’re the weatherman, and it’s beginning to snow. There are plenty of less stuffy ways to say someone’s busy.

Fueling, Fueled by – Are you pulling up to the pump? When we’re talking gasoline, fine. Don’t use this silly device to explain someone’s motivation (“His success is fueled by driving ambition…” Ecch!) or to describe the progress of a story (“The Governor’s slurred speech is fueling speculation that he’s seriously ill.”)

Hamper and Damper. (not to be confused with Hekyll and Jekyll, who didn’t write too well, either). Somehow, rescues and investigations are never just difficult. They’re hampered by rough terrain or reluctant witnesses. And you’d be amazed how many drive-by shootings put a damper on block parties. Dump the bloated language, and just tell folks what’s going on

Heating up – If you’re referring to soup, maybe. Unfortunately, this term seems to show up every time we get within three weeks of an election. Don’t insult people’s intelligence. They understand what a close race means. If it’s not a close race, don’t say it is.

Held Talks – “The President and the British Prime Minister held talks at the White House.” When you and your co-workers gather in the conference room, are you “holding talks”? When you call someone into your office, is it to “hold talks”? And when you can’t get in to see the boss, does his secretary say he’s “holding talks?” A meeting is a meeting is a meeting. People meet. Even in the White House.

Here At Home – A cliche AND a bad transition, all rolled into one! This is the lazy man’s way of getting from a plane crash in Cairo to a car crash on I-95. Know what? A person hearing this is likely to say, “What do they think I am, an idiot? Like I don’t know my own backyard isn’t in Egypt?!”

Hospitalized – Bathrooms get sanitized. Shirts get Martinized. People do not get hospitalized. They’re in the hospital.

Hot Seat – Sounds painful, even with asbestos underwear. Why are folks so reluctant to simply say, “The Senator’s in trouble tonight”?

In The Wake Of –  Boats have wakes. Dead people have wakes. Stories don’t. An event happens after, right after, immediately after another event, not in the wake of it.

It –  Nit-picking, you say?  After all, who could have anything against a sweet, innocent little word like “it”? Trouble is, too many writers abuse this word, to begin scripts with artificial hype: “It’s been called the second worst paper cut accident in the past ten weeks!!” “It’s a parent’s worst nightmare!” (what would a best nightmare be?) “It’s the biggest thing to hit the Southland since Arnold Schwarzenegger bought a Hum-vee!” All that before you ever tell your viewers what the devil you’re talking about. It’s simply unfair. It’s a cheat. You’re not informing, you’re teasing, keeping your audience waiting, when they’ve already suffered through umpteen real teases, waiting to hear the story. Don’t do it.

It’s Not Known, It’s Not Clear – see Details Are Sketchy

Killing Spree. Webster’s says a spree is “a lively frolic.” Mass murder is not a “spree”. It’s mass murder.

Local. Ask a New Yorker. “Local” means the subway makes three stops, instead of one, to get to 59th Street. Don’t use phrases like, “A local man is in jail tonight” or “He was rushed to a local hospital”. If the guy’s birthplace or the hospital’s street address matters, say so. If not, don’t waste viewers’ time.

Major Breakthrough. Seems some folks can’t write a medical story without this little bit of redundancy. By definition, there’s no such thing as a minor breakthrough, any more than there’s such a thing as a miniature Sumo wrestler.

Manhunt. First of all, no one thought it was a foxhunt! Second, this is Cop-talk Supreme. Non-conversational, and sexist to boot. A search is a search.

Marred. Unfortunately, some writers can’t resist describing that inevitable Christmas car crash that marred the holiday spirit. Never mind that someone was killed, hey, we’re DEPRESSED now!  Leave a wet glass on the armoire, and the furniture gets marred. That’s about it.

Mastermind. Anytime there’s more than one mugger/bank robber/con artist working together, we reward the guy in charge with this silly title, instead of just saying he planned the crime. Look, Professor Moriarty outwitting Sherlock Holmes, that’s a mastermind. Some creep who sticks a gun in a teller’s face… no way.

Motorists. Where have all the drivers gone? Don’t fall into the DMV Handbook trap.

Officials Say – Don’t cheat the audience with this cheap trick, or its tacky counterpart, “Authorities Say”. WHICH officials/authorities are saying it? Name a name, give a title,  or just find another way. This overused piece of news camouflage only tells viewers, “We didn’t bother to find out.” Is that what you want to say?

On Hand, On The Scene – Silly, outmoded jargon for “there”. How many of your friends talk this way? “Hey, Pete! I went to this party, and guess what? Tom Hanks was on hand!”

Pedestrians – DMV babble. They were people before they stepped off the curb. They’re people after they step off the curb.

Plagued – Isn’t it funny how politicians aren’t troubled by scandals anymore? They’re plagued!  Pharaoh seeing frogs in his oatmeal… that’s a plague. Anywhere else… dump it.

Plunge, Plummet – Ever notice that nobody just falls anymore?  Newton’s Law applies. No matter what word you use, you hit the ground just as hard, so keep it simple.

Prompted– Non-conversational shortcut for saying A led to B (“The arrest prompted a new investigation”) Let’s keep the prompters in the studio and the plain talk on the air. How about, “Because of the arrest, the D.A. is taking another look at the case”?

Recent memory–  “It’s the bloodiest massacre in recent memory”. Admit it. Why do you say “recent memory”? Because you don’t remember! You don’t know if it’s the worst disaster in 10 years, 15 years or 45 minutes! But you don’t want to tell your viewers that, so you fudge. All you’re really doing is telling them how bad your research staff is. If you don’t know the right number, go find out, or find another way to tell the story.

Reduced to rubbleEver see a storm/hurricane/tornado/riot story without this one? Sounds like someone turned on a ray gun and suddenly, Poof! Rubble! (“Honey I Shrunk the Town?”) Tell folks that homes were destroyed, describe what the place looks like. Leave the reducing to Weight Watchers.

Reportedly – Do you know anyone, anywhere on the planet, who uses “reportedly” in normal conversation? If someone is reporting something, say so. If you’re using this tired device to shift blame in case you’ve made a factual error, shame on you.

Reeling – Typical day-after-disaster nonsense. As if whole towns can be seen walking down earthquake, flood or hurricane-ravaged streets, spinning and spiraling as they go. Please. Reels are for fishing poles. Just say what the people are doing.

Robbery Gone Bad – see Botched Robbery

The Search is On –  As if saying “Police are looking for an escaped killer” isn’t urgent enough, some writers make it sound like a day at the track, using this ugly cousin to “The Race is On”. Unnecessary, and just plain silly.

Seen Here – As in, “Evander Holyfield, seen here on the left with the missing ear….” Nobody in real life says “seen here” to identify someone. Imagine your Aunt Tillie, showing those vacation slides: “And your Uncle Ed, seen here falling off the pier…” What’s wrong with saying, “That’s him on the left”?

Slain – Dragons are slain. People are killed.

Slated – Maybe once upon a time, frequent, regularly scheduled events like rallies, movie openings and Larry King weddings were written on slates. Not these days. What’s wrong with saying “The protest will take place on Tuesday?”

Sparked Save the pyrotechnics for the Fourth of July. Events, debates or controversies aren’t sparked, they’re caused. If something’s been sparked, it had better be an electrical fire, and even there, it sounds a little too cliche, don’t you think?

Staffer – “What do you do for a living?” “Oh, I’m a staffer for the Governor.” This horrible contraction has no place in normal spoken English, where regular folks talk about people who work for the Governor, or even people on the Governor’s staff, but not staffers.

Sustained Minor Injuries –  Amazing how many folks out there sustain minor injuries, even though they weren’t badly hurt.

That, according to; this, as. Where have all the verbs gone? Do you talk to your neighbor this way? “Hey Bob, Sam’s getting a new car… that, according to his wife…” “I hear Marge is going on a diet… this, as her waistline expands…”

Torrential Rain. He ain’t heavy, he’s torrential! Weather stories have their own set of overhyped terms, and this is one of the worst. If you can’t find a more creative way to describe a storm, you’re all wet.

Unanswered questions – Well, duh!  Is there another kind of question? Once a question is answered, it’s not a question anymore! Don’t use excess verbiage just to sound rhythmically authoritative. If there are questions, say so. Period.

Under Fire – In wartime, maybe. It is sheer exaggeration and silliness to refer to a troubled Congressman, indicted businessman or controversial mayor this way. If someone is criticizing a person or his ideas, spell it out. Save the ammo for the revolution.

Under Investigation –  Fires. Crimes. Watergate. Your local Member of Congress. This horrible device turns up more often than flea powder at a dog show. Throw it away. Do they know the cause of the fire? No. Is someone investigating? Yes. Has the Senator been convicted? He’s still young. Say what you mean, and jettison the excess.

Under Siege – When the Israelites surround ancient Jericho, you can call it a siege. But why must writers turn every political, economic, or social problem into Custer’s Last Stand?

Underwent Surgery – Only if they’re hospitalized (see above). People HAVE surgery. Doctors OPERATE on them.

Unrest – UnCola. Un-Conversational. Unbelievable that people still use this word in news scripts, when they’d never, EVER use it at home or anywhere else. Angry hordes of citizens don’t run unresting through the streets. They riot.

Vehicle – More Coptalk. Is it a car? A truck? A tricycle? Say so.

Vow – “The President vows to veto the bill”. Politicians make promises. Nuns take vows. And politicians are not… well, nevermind.

Watched in horror – Folks who happen to see a murder/earthquake/Wes Craven movie don’t watch in joy, mirth or indifference (well, maybe the movie) so why state the obvious? And why use such an overdone cliche to make an obvious point?

Wreak Havoc – Bad enough this overblown term shows up in stories about earthquakes and hurricanes. But traffic jams? Do fender-benders really wreak havoc with the morning rush hour? Just tell folks how long they’ll be sitting on the Interstate.


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