Monday, May 25, 2009

Cause of Death for Both Strunk and White Listed as "Verbs"

The subheadline in today's Globe read, in part, "Sox Vault into First."

Leaving aside the questionable notion that a baseball team moving from one-half game out of first to one-half game into first on Memorial Day represents news of any kind, let's contemplate the verb "vault." It is a classic example of the pure newspaper word, one used exclusively in print and never, ever, in ordinary speech as spoken by any American you could name.

Ever use "vault" as a verb? I'm betting no. I have, but only because I covered pole vaulting at a couple of Olympic Games. In real life, "vault" is a noun, meaning the place banks kept money back when they had any.

"Mull" is another newspaper word. It is used to indicate some individual or organization in the process of making a decision. Presidents mull a lot, and so do football coaches before roster cutdown day. Outside newspaper land, the only thing that ever gets mulled is cider.

Here's my favorite, all-time pet peeve newspaper word, one so insidious it actually has slipped into common usage. It's "aging," as in "aging veteran" or "aging infrastructure." It means, of course, "considered to be too old for its purpose." But "aging" should not be an adjective, damn it, because it's meaningless. Aging is a verb and it is an ongoing process for EVERYTHING. Were I a sports editor, God forbid, I would strike "aging" from every article with the instruction "Go out and find me a player who isn't aging, because THAT'S news!"

Sometimes, like aging, newspaper words are adjectives. "Controversial," for example, which as I have posted before, means the exact opposite of its dictionary definition. "Controversial" in the paper means not "subject of fierce debate" but "universally loathed." But mostly, newspaper words are verbs, short, snappy active verbs. A lot of them mean "disagree" or "criticize." Slam, rip, blast, etc.

Read the story underneath the headline and the lede and it's likely to reveal the person doing the slamming, ripping, etc. said something to the effect of, "I believe I could help the team if I played more," or "I am uncertain as to how this worthy public project can be funded." The newspaper verb makes more of the facts than they are, which is without question the most common sin in journalism. So much of my former trade consists of attempting to convince people what you're telling them is important. The desperate fear that no one is paying attention is the reporter's sleepless 3 a.m. companion.

Newspaper verbs most often appear in headlines, which are a strange form of the English language, especially at a tabloid like the Herald. They really are "all the news that fits" being limited by available space, a decision involving something called "picas." I never learned what they are, but they're important.

A good tab headline is urban concrete poetry-a bad one is pure gibberish. They're not easy to write, and every story has to have one. Deadline and creative pressure leads to the frequent use of newspaper verbs, and their subsequent distortion of reality.

This should be no big deal. Newspaper readers ought to know that newspaper stories are, in spirit, written in crayon with one's teeth, with much of the nuance of human existence sacrificed to make a few big points as succinctly as possible. I wouldn't even bring up newspaper words except for one odd fact.

In my experience, the only thing 99 percent of readers remember about a story the next day is the headline and maybe the first sentence. Newspaper words leave scars on the public consciousness.


At 9:26 AM, Anonymous adamg said...

Have you ever thought of running for solon in the Hub?

But really, you kids today. In my day, we had pica rulers and WE LIKED THEM. Especially when we'd have hot-wax fights out in production.


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