I used to think of journalists as the leaders, rather than the lemmings, of our language. Well, maybe I was thinking of print journalists, New Yorker writers, who don’t go in for clichés as broadcast journalists too often do. They (and the self-aggrandizing pundits who appear on their shows) seem to have sunken happily into the sloth of clichés.
Old enough to remember the first Gulf conflict, when Stormin’ Norman and Colin Powell brought us “prosecute a war?” For months after that war ended, you couldn’t watch a news show without hearing someone mention prosecuting something—and they weren’t talking about a person or a courtroom.
On the Ground
There’s nothing like a war to stir up broadcasters to copy military terms and apply them long after those terms have anything to do with war.
I hear journalists using “on the ground” for just about any exciting event, especially bad weather. A tornado has passed through? They tell us they have a reporter on the ground, then ask the reporter: “Can you tell us about the situation on the ground there?”
Most of us haven’t ever seen a war zone (thank heavens) except on TV. But anywhere there’s rubble, a broadcaster’s sure to exclaim, “It looks like a war zone!” The phrase has caught on to the extent that people use it to describe their offices and their teenagers’ bedrooms.
For quite a while after journalists began traveling as part of fighting missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, everything was embedded. Everything.
Order of Magnitude
Does anyone really know what an “order of magnitude” is? I hear it on the radio practically every day, particularly in reference to the escalating US debt.
Ugh. I don’t remember who it was, but someone wrote that you could just substitute “not” for arguably and come close to the truth. Try it.
One of my longtime annoyances. Some family protecting its rights in Vermont is fiercely independent. The phrase is written as if its constituent words cannot be separated. Why is no one ever intensely independent? Forcefully independent? Ferociously independent?
The same goes for “companionable silence,” although I admit that one usually pops up in novels.
Why Do So Many Journalists Employ Clichés?
The habit of leaning on clichés could be tied to the pressure of writing stories under tight deadlines (or just plain lazy brains). So, I asked Shari Lopatin, a journalist who doesn’t rely on clichés, for her take on the subject.
“As a journalist and media strategist, one of the first lessons I was taught in journalism school, was to avoid clichés. And I try my darned hardest to stick to that lesson! Nevertheless, those clichés will arise inevitably. Have I noticed a rise in the clichés used by other journalists? Not any more than I’ve seen in the past.
“I cannot think of specific clichés that rub me the wrong way (catch that one?). But I have other pet peeves in print-and-broadcast writing that drive me bonkers—such as beginning a sentence with ‘There is.’ Or adding too many ‘thats’ to a paragraph. I understand the pressure that comes with writing news under deadline, but I always try to go through my work and check for clichés before submitting it. Because the best writers and journalists think outside the pen.”
Mired in clichés yourself? Try Phrase Finder. And see: Are You Addicted to Clichés? Help Is On The Way!, by Russell Working. He’d also be grateful if you’d take a look at the trailer for his book, The Hit.
Add the clichés that bug you in the Comments below.
In my next post I’ll rant about rampant incorrect usage: “Hopefully,” anyone?