Well-worn phrases set journalists’ teeth on edge

Family traditions die hard.

When I was in college in the Dark Ages, my mother would send me a few business-size envelopes each week – often with a letter, and always stuffed with newspaper and magazine clippings. There were Cleveland Plain Dealer clippings about the Indians baseball and Browns football teams, clippings from the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram about news from northern Ohio, Avon Lake Press community updates on which high school girlfriends were getting married and to whom, Newsweek clippings about politics and world events – the works.

My mother’s Babcock Clipping Service was a well-oiled communications machine I’ve tried to replicate with my own college-student daughter – often, I suspect, to her chagrin. But while my clipping scissors ravage Sunday New York Times pages, most of my clips these days are Googled and sent online.

When I Google an article, I often enter the writer’s name and a phrase occurring in the first paragraph or two. Recently I’ve Googled phrases such as “war-weary nation” or “at a later day,” only to discover that the journalist has written a number of stories during recent months using the exact same phrases – phrases that often appear in the leads of a number of the reporter’s unrelated stories. (To spare the tender egos of journalists from Los Angeles to Boston to New York to Beijing to Edinburgh, I’ll mention no names!)

That got me thinking about the words and phrases, redundancies and clichés we all regularly come across from traditional and new-age journalists alike. And when I asked staff members at a recent Gateway Journalism Review meeting if they had any journalism words pet peeves, I thought of Joan Baez as my colleagues’ “memories tumbling like sweets from a jar” filled the room with examples:


Overused expressions:

• Hot-button issues – Do they really burn your fingers?

• Gridlocked Congress – Perhaps this belongs under “redundancies.”

• Group of concerned citizens – Is a group of citizens ever unconcerned?

• Holding talks – Holding them by the ears, or the nose, or the beard, or …

Incorrect usage:

• Podium – You wouldn’t be thinking of a “lectern,” would you?

• Enormity – “Great wickedness,” but so misused that another definition finally was accepted.

• Hopefully – An adverb. Period!


• Totally destroyed – Is destruction ever not total?

• Tiny little – To make it clear for people who don’t under­stand “tiny”?

• Hunker down – Two squat twice?

• Honest truth – As opposed to a bald-faced truth?

• Close proximity – Up close and impersonal?

• It is what it is – The very definition of “tautological.”

• At the end of the day – Six words that say absolutely nothing.

• It’s long past time – To stop using this phrase … and the others listed above.


And then there’s “inflammable,” meaning it does burn, which so many people thought meant “unburnable” that a new word was coined – “flammable” – which also means “burnable.” It seems that people were confused a few decades ago when they saw gas/petro­leum tank trucks sporting the large logo, “inflammable,” thinking the content of the trucks to be safe and non-burnable, and thus the labeling change.

Now if you’ve gotten this far, you no doubt have come up with journalism words that are “hot buttons” for you. So that we might regularly share these with our gatewayjr.org readers, please send us your suggestions. “Hopefully” this might become a GJR staple, so we will “hunker down” until we hear from you. And we hope the “enormity” of this un­dertaking will help us all discover the “honest truth” about how journalists use the English language.

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