Ambrose Bierce was a journalist who wrote for and edited a number of newspapers and magazines for decades before vanishing in northern Mexico in 1914, at a time when Pancho Villa and his compañeros were riding high. Bierce’s literary reputation (he was fond of noting that journalism was not to be confused with literature) rests on several vivid, brutal short stories about the Civil War, in which he served. He spent much of the rest of his life in San Francisco, ending up in Washington, D.C. for a dozen years or so.
Bierce was a stickler for precision in writing. He once said, “Clear writing is clear thinking made visible.” His slender, now-forgotten book titled Write it Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults was published in 1909. Some of its approximately 400 examples of thou-shalt-nots are amusing today. Take, for example, his caution that one should not use “conservative” when one means “moderate” as in “‘a conservative estimate’; ‘a conservative forecast’; ‘a conservative statement,’ and so on. These and many other abuses of the word are of recent growth in the newspapers and ‘halls of legislation.’ Having been found to have several meanings, ‘conservative’ seems to be thought to mean everything.”
A San Francisco book dealer’s spring catalogue carried a listing for this hard-to-find volume, so I snapped it up. As I went through it, this irony struck me: Bierce, a career journalist, was passionate about verbal precision and clarity in his writing, and he used good grammar in its service. Today, setting aside fad words and phrases of teenagers, it is journalists who, in large part, have forsaken precision and clarity for endless — and thus irritating — repetitions of slovenly phrases and who wring new and confusing meanings out of words that were otherwise serviceable as is.
Take “That said.” In newspaper and magazine stories, this often begins a paragraph which follows a recitation of facts or circumstances that are related to one another. The writer follows “That said,” with some countervailing information. One wonders whatever happened to “nevertheless.”
Another journalistic favorite is “arguably,” which is used instead of “perhaps,” “may be” or “probably.” It is always used in a context in which no one is likely to raise an argument.
The New York Times, which thinks of itself as the arbiter of good journalistic taste, permits its writers to us “like” as it if meant “such as,” which it does not. It means “similar to.”
A common fad at present is to turn verbs into nouns and vice versa. The computer world has given us “access” as a verb, but it is journalists, especially those on television, who use the verbs “construct,” “disconnect,” and “intercept” as if they were nouns (as in, “There is a disconnect between what he said and what he did”). Considering the glottal-stops required to convert these verbs into nouns, they are actually more work for the person speaking them.
Easily the most misused word among journalists today is “media.” It is derived from a Latin word and is the plural of “medium.” Today, it is frequently used as a singular noun by those who should know better. To use it as if it were singular, one must assume that the news media, collectively, are monumental — integrated and unified — which of course they are not. Or, to put it another way, the media, they is not monumental.
Six months to the day after the September 11, 2001 attacks, television news readers and commentators were taking note of what they called “the sixth-month anniversary” of the event. “Anniversary” is derived from two Latin words, “annus” (year) and “vertere” (to turn). Any dictionary will define it as “Commemorated at the same date each year” or words to that effect. Thus, a sixth-month “anniversary” does not exist.
Why does no one at news organizations spot these errors? Lazy writers. Not enough editors. Not enough editors trained in the use of the language. Indifference to clarity and precision. Widespread abandonment of the teaching of grammar in public schools. Choose any or all.
Which brings me to locutions that seem rooted in broader social trends. Do you know anyone under the age of 30 who, when thanked for something, says “You’re welcome”? Chances are your “Thank you” will get as a reply, “No problem” (pronounced “prollem”). “You’re welcome” means, in effect, you are welcome to the small service I have just performed. The Spanish say de nada and the French, who always find a long way to say short things, use il n’ya pas de quoi. Both mean, in effect, “it was nothing; don’t mention it.” Like “You’re welcome,” both express modesty and a pleasure in accommodating the other person — positive notions. “No problem,” on the other hand is assertive and negative: “You didn’t cause me a problem — fortunately.” Americans like to think of themselves as problem-solvers and this may be the basis for the ugly phrase. What to do about it? No prollem. Next time you hear the phrase, just reply, “”Funny, but it didn’t occur to me that it would be a problem.”