The 17 worst cliches in the newspaper business

With so many examples of overuse that you will never, ever employ any of them again

So Sunday I’m reading the newspaper and on the front page of Section B is the following sentence, with a very familiar phrase that I shall underline:

Ground zero for [airport] expansion opponents was the Furama Hotel in Westchester.

And then I turn to the front page of Section C and there is the same very familiar phrase in another story:

But the calm is deceptive: This is ground zero in the leading online brokerage’s high-stakes gamble to…

The 17 worst cliches in the newspaper business

The 17 worst cliches in the newspaper business

So I’m already hacked off about clichés, and then a couple hours later I’m listening to the Laker pre-game show before Game 3 of the NBA Finals and the fans are calling up and giving their predictions. And I’m hearing every sports cliché in the book, the winner being: “You can’t stop Allen Iverson, you can only hope to contain him.” And I’m thinking–as a listener, as a consumer of this stuff–how bored I am by having to hear everybody’s ideas expressed in the same vapid way.

So join me this week in declaring war on clichés.

I started venting more about clichés last year because I was working full-time as a writing coach, and added a “cliché-of-the-month” to my “Nuts & Bolts” newsletter. As a result, every few days a staffer somewhere in the paper would e-mail me a new example. I’d check it in our electronic library and would be routinely horrified at how many times the offending phrase turned up. It wasn’t that the cliché was being used in the wrong way; it was the sheer volume, the idea that a reader could keep being hit with the same cliche every second or third day. Didn’t the writers know this? Didn’t they read the paper? Didn’t they read other papers? Didn’t they have enough pride to resist sounding so ordinary?

What follows are 17 of my non-faves, each punctuated by enough examples to make you sick to your stomach and make you stop following the pack. If you have not used a single one of these clichés during your past dozen stories, e-mail me here at and I’ll proclaim you a hero in front of the entire gang of regulars. But I don’t believe there are any of you out there that virtuous. We’re all addicts, and we all have to cut back on our use of these little devils.

Prepare to cringe, and to then take the pledge:

1. To be sure

This cliché is a reminder we ceaselessly use for emphasis. But if you’re writing with decent transitional logic, the reader is in synch and doesn’t need this pretentious help. See how four examples, published over three days in my newspaper, would have read just as well without the cliche:

–To be sure, Compton, population 100,000, is not the first city to outsource a major department. Forty of the county’s cities already rely on the county Sheriff’s Department for police services, and 54 municipalities are…

–To be sure, recent turmoil in the stock market has not discriminated, taking a toll on Latino dot-coms with poor revenue-generating capacities. For example, Phoenix-based, a bilingual portal targeting U.S. Hispanics, laid off a third of its staff in…

–Toyota’s 2000 MR2 Spyder is a car of possibilities, some realized and some not. To be sure, it’s an easy car to like: light, quick, nimble and quite well-mannered, which is the rule with modern sports cars. But this obvious competitor with Mazda’s venerable Miata…

–“Turn It Up” boasts strong musical selections and an effective score by Frank Fitzpatrick. It has action and violence, to be sure, but it may prove considerably more serious and uncompromising than its audience expected.

2. Ratcheted up

It’s hard to live in a world this pressurized. One hallmark is the number of times something is “ratcheted up.” Writers, unable to resist the lure of a word that drips with tension, have beaten it into the ground. Consider these eight uses in a six-week period:

–Federal agencies have had to quickly ratchet up their knowledge of the perils of Ecstasy and their enforcement efforts.

–Deductible contribution limits would ratchet up for all taxpayers to…

–Chile relleno casero takes a fairly classic Mexican favorite and ratchets it up a notch or two.

–…the indicted leader continues to ratchet up his assault on the Serbian people.

–Metro Rail is a critical cog in the larger social engine of the city, because it helps ratchet up the sense of cosmopolitanism that makes cities worth living in.

–The arrival of the Japanese team ratchets up the competition.

–Bus and train operators for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted overwhelmingly Monday to authorize a strike, hoping to ratchet up pressure on the agency to agree on a new contract.

–Pyongyang has previously thrived on creating conflict. But Kwak, of the unification institute, argues that the Northern leader is unlikely now to reverse course and ratchet up military tensions.

3. Defining moment

Life is full of defining moments. But if life is too full of “defining moments,” the moments lose value. When I did a check last year, my paper was publishing defining moments at the rate of about one every three days. This doesn’t count a hefty number of quotes in which our own sources proclaim defining moments.

Consider these uses in a recent four-week period:

–In what could turn out to be a defining moment of sports serving diplomacy, the International Olympic Committee has invited the two Koreas to march together…

–In the years that passed, Munoz did everything at camp–counselor, backpacking instructor–but getting that first job was a defining moment in his life, he said.

–The Eagles, partly because of an injury to junior right-hander Jason Urquidez, got off to a slow start. Then came their defining moment.

–Johnson said playing in Williamsport, Pa., was a defining moment that has helped him deal with pressure.

–Indeed, Foley seems to have an instinct for picking out the defining moment, whether in a single poem or a whole generation of poets.

–If the trend is confirmed in other polls, Mexico’s presidential race could be at a defining moment, analysts said.

–(Phil) Jackson’s defining moment of those years came in 1994. Unbeknownst to fans and the media…

–The expected announcement by Celera will be a defining moment in the bruising, often bitter competition between the biotech firm and the international collaboration of academic researchers…

4. …not alone.

The most comforting thing about reading newspapers is the knowledge that we are not alone. Virtually every day–14 times in one 13-day period, for example–my paper proved the existence of a group by saying that one of their members “is not alone.”

Like this:

–MacFarlane, 34, can afford to live anywhere he wants. But this small-towner wouldn’t think of leaving Santa Barbara for the big city. “I’m here to stay,” he said. And he’s not alone.

–Berewa, the justice minister, said authorities are investigating every twist and turn of Sankoh’s sordid career and will make a recommendation about whether to prosecute. If he stands trial, Berewa said, he will not be alone: The intention is to include as many top RUF accomplices as possible.

–It seems like full-time work to her, and yet when she adds up her state-reimbursed wages at the end of the day, she says her hourly rate hovers somewhere between $2 or $3. She is not alone. Family day-care operators who provide subsidized care for the children of welfare recipients have long complained that they make less than…

–Hall has not journeyed alone from the life of a cop to a life of crime. In the seven years that U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has run the Department of Justice, the number of law-enforcement officers doing time in federal prisons has risen to 668–an increase of nearly 600%.

–And with the national economy in good health, California is not alone in boosting education spending. Illinois Gov. George Ryan and South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, for example, have proposed more money for education in their states.

This is, on one level, annoying in its repetitiveness. But it also speaks to a deeper flaw: intellectual laziness. If you really believe that your anecdote illustrates a collective number, you owe your reader an honest explanation that is more specific than the mere fact that Character X “is not alone.” It’s the kind of low-common-denominator assertion that is begging for a “no shit, Sherlock” reaction. Are there lots of people like Character X? Scores? Hundreds? Thousands?

If a cop is one of scores or hundreds being prosecuted, say it. If California is one of several states boosting school spending, say it. And if you can’t quantify the extent of a phenomenon–which is why “not alone” usually surfaces–be honest with the reader: Say so in the first place.

We fall into “not-alone” land because it’s easier to describe something by what it’s not than by what it is. That’s why people wind up being described too often as “not angry,” or “not surprised.” Reporters evade grappling with more nuanced questions about how people did feel. By contrast, affirmative descriptions, by their specificity, are far more powerful and necessary. The next time your fingers type “not alone,” ask yourself if you can’t do better.

5. The Holy Grail

Do you know the real reason nobody can find the Holy Grail? Because writers use it so often as a figure of speech they have beaten it deep into the ground.

The Grail was the cup that touched the lips of Christ at the last supper. Joseph of Arimathea was said to have acquired it, and to have gathered the blood of the fallen Christ in it. The chalice was handed down, disappeared, became the object of endless speculation.

If it showed up as a literary device once or twice a month, we could live with it. But my paper’s writers used it 27 times during the first four months of 2000, including the following five that ran during the last four days of April:

–For horsemen, the Derby is the Holy Grail, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the summit of Everest.

–For De Botton, none of this is of interest. In his view, philosophers are united by “a common interest in saying a few consoling and practical things about the causes of our greatest griefs.” It is philosophy as therapy, and truth–surely philosophy’s own Holy Grail–does not get a look-in.

–After 10 years of research on more than 4,000 subjects, gene therapy researchers may finally have reached their Holy Grail–curing a patient with a genetic disease.

–High-speed connections, which are in some cases 100 times faster than conventional phone lines, are necessary for consumers to tap into the Holy Grail of the Internet: the streaming of movies, games and concerts into the home over the personal computer.

–As exciting as the finding was, the images produced by COBE were blurry and indistinct. Obtaining images of the wrinkles with more detail has been something of a scientific Holy Grail.

6. The rest is history

–With O’Keeffe, the gender of the artist conformed with the gender socially ascribed to American art–and the rest is history.

–A year later, the Indians recognized their error and Herrington was hired. The rest is history.

–But these structures have come a lot farther than just a roadway’s length over the years. They’ve found new life and new uses. The rest is history.

–…the Earth congeals from the cinders of spent stars, life animates the planet, asteroids bombard it, dinosaurs roam. The rest is history.

Had enough?

7. If you build it…

“Field of Dreams” is now 12 years old, yet several of our writers treat the movie’s signature philosophy–“if you build it, they will come”–like a new toy. We published variations eight times in a recent five-month period. A few samples:

–If you build it…the butterflies will come… (headline)

–The saying goes, “If you build it, they will come.” Guess what, ‘they’ are already here.”

–If you build it, they will come. That’s the mantra of certain Newport Beach movers and shakers who are committed to turning the 73-year-old Balboa Theater…

–But a jazz club is not like a fantasy baseball field. If you build it, they–meaning audiences–will not necessarily come, no matter how attractively it’s put together.

8. Welcome to the world of…

Eighteen times in a 14-month period, my colleagues introduced a so-called phenomenon by saying, “Welcome to the world of…” There were, for example, five uses during a 32-day period:

–Welcome to the multicultural world of minor league baseball, where Chen’s performance has…

–Welcome to the hardball world of senior softball, where explosive growth…

–Welcome to the wonderful world of color.

–Welcome to the murky world of major college football, which is controlled…

–Welcome to the world of Oaxacan folk carvings.

9. Fast forward…

“Fast forward…” appeared 27 times during a 50-week period as a device to indicate a quick jump in time. The numbing incarnations included:

–Fast-forward to this fall, when the media showered hype on the WB network’s “Felicity”…

–Fast-forward to 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday of Super Bowl Week…

–Fast-forward 11 weeks. No sale has been announced, although…

–Fast-forward to the present. By coincidence, the market peaked at…

Shorter takes on other tired habits:

10. Brave new world: The title of Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel is often used as a sardonic reference to a future of universal happiness. How often? We did it 200 times in the last three years, including 10 times in a recent 52-day period Had enough?

11. Inner-city: Too often we use this geographic phrase as code language for poor, non-white people, exploiting the many images it carries. It’s lazy. ”Inner-city” is so freighted with symbolism that it has ceased to be specific. If you want to say something about a place’s racial makeup, get the details and present them. If you want to deal with geography, then do it. In the same vein, try to stop using catch-alls like ”gritty.” Ask yourself: What do I really see, specifically–broken windows, overgrown bushes, dead trees, old tires, abandoned cars, graffiti layers deep–beyond the fact that people’s skin color is different?

12. Move forward: This phrase is threatening to become the ”closure” of the new decade.

13. Hammering out: “I want to spit every time I encounter in the L.A. Times that an agreement is being hammered out,” one staffer writes with appropriate indignity. “It’s a classic example of a once-vivid image that’s become a mass-produced, off-the-shelf trope for word-lazy newspaper journalists. Lately, its awful cousin–crafted–has been working its way into the columns of the paper, too. (Craft doesn’t equate to make or devise. It means to make or devise with unusual skill or artistry). Please do something to hammer hammer out out of the heads of those who resort to it.”

14. Quality: Offered, with our endorsement, by the same indignant staffer: “This is a classic example of semi-literate TV sports-speak contaminating our paper, which, as a last bastion of literacy, is supposed to be more sophisticated and exact. The word quality, thus misused, is meant to convey good quality or high quality. But the word itself is value-neutral. There can also be poor quality and shoddy quality.”

15. Sea change: We’re dropping this into syntax, quotes or headlines about every fourth day. It’s time to drown it.

16. Level playing field: Seven uses in less than four weeks.

And, last but not least, my personal favorite:

17. Irony: 1 (a): the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning; (b): a usually humorous or sardonic literary style or form characterized by irony; (c): an ironic expression or utterance. 2 (a) (1): incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result; (a) (2): an event or result marked by such incongruity. (3) incongruity between a situation developed in a drama and the accompanying words or actions that is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play–called also dramatic irony, tragic irony.”

The words “irony,” “ironic” or “ironically” appeared nine times on Jan. 1 in my newspaper and a total of 42 times during the first nine days of 2001. The three-year average is five times per day. That’s right, 5.5395 doses of irony per day.

Sometimes, we misuse irony as a substitute for odd, or strange. Other times–many times–we hit the reader over the head with it. Consider:

In an ironic final chapter to the most disputed presidential election in modern history, Vice President Al Gore presided over his own defeat Saturday, as a joint session of Congress formally declared George W. Bush the next president of the United States.

The question editors should be asking themselves is: If it’s truly ironic, do we have to point it out?

If you want to see the collective hazard of seeking irony at every turn, watch what the Village Voice’s press columnist, Cynthia Cotts, was able to do to the New York Times:

Not so long ago, irony was viewed as a menace on 43rd Street, where the tone was consistently sober and any humor that crept in purely unintentional. But that’s all changed. No one can pinpoint the exact date, but sometime between the arrival of [Sunday magazine editor] Adam Moss and the departure of Abe Rosenthal, irony has received the imprimatur of The New York Times.

Consider the frequency with which the words “irony” and “ironic” appear in the Times. In fact, the Times’ use of the I-words has risen steadily through the 1990s, to a record high of more than 1,050 in 2000, or an average of three times a day. That’s almost double the irony quotient that Times readers were treated to in 1980.

Irony at the Times can be “dark,” “sad,” “terrible,” or “tragic,” but there are no small ironies and never enough. Long a staple of the arts coverage, irony has been quietly implemented by other Times sections of late, including the once-staid business and national desks. The trend surfaced on November 13, when Linda Greenhouse landed a spot on the front page to broadcast the “delicious” irony that Republicans, traditional defenders of states’ rights, were determined to take the Florida case federal. By the time the case reached the Supremes, Times editorial writers had picked up the cry, writing, “It is ironic indeed to see the very justices who have repeatedly ruled in favor of states’ rights . . . do an about-face in this case.”

Times writers have apparently been instructed to find role models for the institutional pose of choice. Thus in 2000, readers learned that Lauren Bacall won an award for her “ironic look,” that Madonna developed her appetite for irony in England, and that Martha Stewart, Pee-wee Herman, and Chevy Chase are ironic icons. Writer Bruce Jay Friedman is a veteran “irony man,” while former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti can carry off a sinister billboard ad because “there is a string of irony running through his personality.” And let’s not forget Helen Fielding, whose female characters are “complex ironic jokes.”

But the master class should be reserved for magazine reporter Alex Kuczynski, who mines every situation for irony. Kuczynski kicked off the year with a profile of Time writer Joel Stein, whom she placed in the “openly ironic” tradition of Seinfeld, and ended it by taking The Nation’s Caribbean cruise, where she found an irony under every bed. Last spring, she discovered the “terrible irony” that George [magazine]had a better chance of living after John-John died, then blasted another Kennedy for the ”glaring” irony of being a lib who takes soft money.

How does my L.A. Times stack up against the New York Times on Ms. Cotts’ scale of “irony” and “ironic”? We whacked ’em! The NYT’s 2000 daily average was 2.87, far below the LAT’s three-year average of 3.58 for those two words. Congrats! he said (ironically).

Recommended reading: “Absolute PowerPoint” in the May 28 issue of the New Yorker (page 76). Magazine staffer Ian Parker brilliantly demonstrates how a technological advance corrupts our intellectual life. It’s a great piece on two levels: First, for any of you who have been forced to sit through Human Resources presentations where they explain why our benefits are being cut, it’s an explanation of why every session has the same vapid tone. But more importantly, it’s an example of what happens when you meld a beat (in this case business) with a zest for social consequences. Go spend the $3.50.

You’ll find a dozen reasons why this piece could never have appeared in a newspaper. Maybe not in this fashion, but the guiding principle–looking at how your beat intersects with real life–will work anywhere. You just have to think more deeply.

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