Style Police: Eschew These Words!

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It's a tough job, but somebody's gotta do it. Strike that! That phrase is a cliche, and it's one of the many language devices that New York Times style cop, Philip Corbett, would flag.

Corbett is actually the New York Times associate managing editor of standards (and enforcer of the paper's style guide). In his blog, After Deadline, Corbett writes about words and phrases that are overused, but often end up in the paper.

Corbett pays special attention to what he calls "journalese." These are expressions you're only likely to find in the news, but would never say.

Some examples include: "in the wake of," "probe," "spark," "push back" and "kerfuffle" (one of Robin Young's personal favorites).

The Times can also track words that people don't know through its website. Whenever someone double-clicks a word, the definition will pop up. Corbett reviews that data to create an annual list of 50 fancy words.

These are words like "quotidian," "eschew," "panegyric" and "immiscible." Corbett says journalists who use those words are probably just showing off. And while he doesn't think writers should "dumb down" their stories, their main goal should be to inform (not impress).

Corbett concedes that occasionally, only a fancy word will do. Indubitably!

As overseer of the style guide, Corbett also monitors grammar and headlines. He says that headline writers seem to have a love affair with Charles Dickens and his novel, "A Tale of Two Cities."

He's found headlines such as, "A Tale of Two Condos," "A Tale of Two Bubbles," even "A Tale of Two Dickens."

One of Corbett's colleagues was curious about the first time a Times headline writer used the Dickensian headline. It was 1877, just seven years after the author died.

The story: "A Tale of Two Continents."

Corbett says that headline writer gets a pass, but for everyone since then, it's just a cliche.

Tell us which words you hear overused on this program, or in other news outlets.

Listener Bob from Providence writes "The worst offenders in recent times refer to 'A PERFECT STORM'.... Grates on my nerves every time I hear or read it!"

Ann Campbell writes that "'tranche'  is my word to skip. Substitute "portion" or "share" or "aliquot" (if you are coerced to be effete.)"


Joe from Medford, "I wanted to offer an overused word that I hear many times daily, particularly on q and a shows...the word is : absolutely"


  • Philip Corbett, New York Times associate managing editor of standards

This segment aired on March 12, 2012.


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