Journalism is the business of communication, and our word choices should serve that interest. Mark Twain is the authority for the self-evident proposition that a writer should seek the exact word and not its second cousin. Some writers seem to find distant uncles.
James J. Kilpatrick is a veteran newspaper commentator who wrote regularly about the need to choose the correct word. In his columns, Kilpatrick offered some painful reminders of the price writers and editors paid when they were careless in using words.
Let's examine a few horrid examples. When mistakes like these are made in stories or on the air, they destroy the credibility of the story, as well as of the writer or speaker.
Identify the misused word in each of Kilpatrick's examples and, then, see if you can determine what word would have been correct for the apparent intended meaning. If in doubt, consult your dictionary.
1. Greenville (S.C.) News: “Personal reconnaissance bonds were set for the other two violations.”
2. The Washington Post published a story about motorists in a certain neighborhood, saying they “flaunt parking regulations.”
3. Las Vegas Review-Journal on the animosity between the governor and a state senator: “The two men have been protagonists since legislators overrode Miller's veto....”
4. Louisville (Ky.) New Voice: “A veto would cast aspirations on the critical faculties of panel members.”
5. Indianapolis News editorial: “Parents will simply have to keep a closer eye and more attenuated ear on what their youngsters are being exposed to.”
6. Spartanburg, S.C., Herald-Journal sports writer on the prospects for the coming basketball season: “...abstract poverty on the campus of Wofford College.”
7. Seattle Post-Intelligencer feature on a novelist who remembered her stay in the hospital: “...waking up to the fecund smell of her own mucus-soaked gauze.”
8. Miami Herald feature on a couple charged with misrepresenting themselves as doctors of sex therapy (the story quoted the couple's lawyer): “Fred and Linda were made out to be a couple of harlequins. They didn't do it.”
9. The Allison Gas Turbine Co. in Indianapolis published a book on the firm's history. The introduction said it contains “interesting antidotes and many pictures.”
10. A Palm Beach Post story on the tolerance among French Catholics toward Archbishop Lefebvre: “There is a long tradition in the French church of harboring schematics...”
11. Headline in Fredricksburg, Va., Free-Lance Star: Pregnancy after tubal litigation rare
12. AP reported that golf pro Jack Nicklaus was practicing furiously for the U.S. Open: “He was testing the precocious winds, the stifling rough....”