You know ‘em. You love ‘em. But can’t we live without ‘em? Groaners are those horrible, overused, hackneyed phrases that turn news copy into boring, “same old, same old” stuff. With your help, I’ve collected some of the worst offenders (Note: when you’ve finished “groaning” be sure to head over to The Blog for fresh, guaranteed Groaner-free articles about the news, and the people who report it!)
Aftermath - Print words don’t belong in spoken copy. Do you know anyone who says “aftermath” in normal conversation? When we were kids, aftermath came recess.
Allegations - “I deny the allegations… and I deny the alligator!” This bloated substitute for “claims,” “charges” or “accusations” is as bad as “allegedly.” Nobody in real life uses it. Unless they’ve been watching too much TV news.
Allegedly - NOBODY, not even cops and district attorneys, NOBODY in real life says “allegedly” in regular conversation. Do you tell your neighbor that someone allegedly broke into your house? Do you tell your buddy that the mayor allegedly took a bribe? Why then, would you say such a thing to your television neighbors?! If you’re worried about legal protections, try these alternatives: “Police say Jones broke into the store.” “Prosecutors are claiming Smith embezzled the money.” “The U.S. Attorney says the Congressman took a bribe.”
Amid, Amidst - Print words. Newspapers may get away with them, as substitutes for “in the middle of,” but we write for the ear… and any ear that hears “amidst” will soon be telling the brain to click the remote.
Area Residents - “Shhh, Tommy, don’t play the drums so loud, you’ll wake the area residents!” Normal people don’t refer to their neighbors this way. Why should we?
Arraigned - Courtroom stories are complicated enough. Don’t make things worse with terminology designed by, and intended for bureaucrats. Ditch the term. Use the EXPLANATION of the term instead. Say the guy appeared in court. Say he faced a judge. Say he was formally charged. Say how he pleaded.
At The End Of The Day - The “Clearly” of the 21st century. Politicians and pundit/talking head types ram this awful phrase down our throats whenever they want to intimidate, show off, or end the argument. Please don’t fall into their trap. At the end of the day, night falls. That’s it.
Botched Robbery, Robbery Gone Bad - Like “unsuccessful suicide”, this is just plain silly. If some punk tries to rip off a 7-Eleven, and the cops show up, so he takes hostages, that’s not a “robbery gone bad.” It was bad at the start. We don’t need to feel sorry for the idiot who “botched” his chance to empty the cash register and decided to become a kidnapper. Let’s just say what happened, and leave the judgments to the folks watching.
Campaign Trail - What, exactly, is a campaign trail, anyway? Are there covered wagons? Does Campaign Cookie rustle up Campaign Grub? Do folks munch Campaign Trail Mix? Just say where the candidate is, and get on with it.
Center Stage - Very theatrical, and about as bad as its evil twin, “In The Spotlight.” Very non-conversational. Insulting, too. There’s no need for a cliché to tell us, “hey, this story is important!” Avoid the collective “duh!!” from the folks watching.
Chanting Slogans - Ah, those wonderful memories of all those protest marches where we bellowed, “A Stitch in Time Saves Nine!” “Neither A Borrower Nor A Lender Be!” “State Farm Is There!” If demonstrators are shouting something important, say what it is.
Clash With Police - The cops wore blue and the rioters wore purple. A serious faux-pas before Labor Day. Stripes and checks clash. Cops and mobs FIGHT, and we should say so.
Clinging To Life - Narrow escapes, traffic accidents and serious illnesses seem to generate Cliché Hell (more groanable examples: “Fighting For His/Her Life”; “Lucky To Be Alive”). Use them on a friend and he’ll probably laugh in your face and say, “Who are you, Ted Baxter?”
Death Toll - Does someone ring a heavenly bell every time a person dies? Does a heavenly nickel get dropped in the fare box on some celestial highway? Maybe “up there”. Down here we speak plain English.
Estranged - Yes, this is a convenient little term for not-quite-divorced husbands and wives. Trouble is, no one in real life ever says, “Peg and I can’t take it anymore. We’re estranged.” No one has a “trial estrangement”. If a couple is separated, say so.
Famed - “Mommy, mommy, I just saw somebody famed over there!” When did “famous” become a dirty word?
Fell to his death - Can’t you just see the poor guy, toppling out the window, hurtling toward the pavement, looking down and exclaiming “Hey, whaddaya know! There’s my death, right down there!” People fall down and are killed.
Firestorm of Controversy - Whoa! Get out the flame-retardant umbrellas! Non-conversational, and bad hyperbole, all rolled into one. Just explain what the controversy is, without the brimstone.
First leg of - Whether it’s a mission on the space shuttle, or a Presidential visit to the Middle East, newswriters can’t seem to resist breaking down the trip into “legs”, instead of parts, countries, orbits or what have you. There’s only one place where this phrase belongs: “The first leg of the centipede appears broken”.
Fled on Foot - Coptalk for “ran away”. No coptalk allowed.
Flurry Of Activity - Not unless you’re the weathercaster, and it’s beginning to snow. There are plenty of less stuffy ways to say someone’s busy.
Gearing Up, Hunker Down - Thanks to Floridians Maria Coppola and Jo Pope for pointing out these hurricane and tornado-related cliches (with honorable mention to John Buckley too!) As Maria so aptly put it, “Does anyone really know what (Gearing Up) means? Nobody does this except those who drive stick shifts.”
Going Forward – Mike Shane of KCRO Radio in Omaha pointed out this one and asked, “What other way can we go in the way this is commonly used?” He recommends “From Now On,” or even “Hereafter.” What do you think?
Gunned Down - You mean, like… shot?
Hamper and Damper (not to be confused with Hekyll and Jekyll, who didn’t write too well, either) – Somehow, rescues and investigations are never just difficult. They’re hampered by rough terrain or reluctant witnesses. And you’d be amazed how many drive-by shootings put a damper on block parties.
Heating up - Soup, maybe. Unfortunately, this term seems to show up every time we get within three weeks of an election. If it’s not a close race, don’t say it is.
Held Talks - “The President and the British Prime Minister held talks at the White House.” When you and your co-workers gather in the conference room, are you “holding talks”? When you call someone into your office, is it to “hold talks”? And when you can’t get in to see the boss, does his secretary say he’s “holding talks?” A meeting is a meeting is a meeting. People meet. Even in the White House.
Here At Home - A cliché AND a bad transition! This is the lazy man’s way of getting from a plane crash in Cairo to a car crash on I-95. Know what? A person hearing this is likely to say, “What do they think I am, an idiot? Like I don’t know my own backyard isn’t in Egypt?!”
Hospitalized - Bathrooms get sanitized. Shirts get Martinized. People do not get hospitalized. They’re in the hospital.
In Harm’s Way - Wars. Cops. Bystanders. This has become the new, supposedly more noble or poetic way of saying “In Danger.” Please try not to overuse it. (It’s also the title of a very old movie. And it was the brilliant caption on a photo of baseball great Harmon Killebrew, with a giant cast on his broken arm.)
In The Line Of Duty - Coptalk. Noble as it may sound, this is not normal conversational English. What’s wrong with saying the police officer was killed on the job?
In The Wake Of - Boats have wakes. Dead people have wakes. Stories don’t. An event happensafter, right after, immediately after another event, not in the wake of it.
Killing Spree - Webster’s says a spree is “a lively frolic.” Mass murder is not a “spree”. It’s mass murder.
Local - Ask a New Yorker. “Local” means the subway makes three stops, instead of one, to get to 59th Street. Don’t use phrases like, “a local man is in jail tonight” or “He was rushed to a local hospital”. If the guy’s birthplace or the hospital’s street address matters, say so. If not, don’t waste viewers’ time.
Major Breakthrough - By definition, there’s no such thing as a minor breakthrough, any more than there’s such a thing as a miniature Sumo wrestler.
Manhunt - First of all, no one thought it was a foxhunt! Second, this is Cop-talk Supreme. Non-conversational, and sexist to boot. A search is a search.
Marred - Some writers can’t resist describing that inevitable Christmas car crash that marred the holiday spirit. Leave a wet glass on the armoire, and the furniture gets marred. That’s about it.
Mastermind - Anytime there’s more than one mugger/bank robber/con artist working together, we reward the guy in charge with this silly title, instead of just saying he planned the crime. Look, Professor Moriarty outwitting Sherlock Holmes, that’s a mastermind. Some creep who sticks a gun in a teller’s face… no way.
Motorists - Where have all the drivers gone? Don’t fall into the DMV Handbook trap.
Officials Say, Authorities Say - WHICH officials/authorities are saying it? Name a name, give a title. This overused piece of news camouflage only tells viewers, “we didn’t bother to find out.” Is that what you want to say?
On Hand, On The Scene - Silly, outmoded jargon for “there”. How many of your friends talk this way? “Hey, Joe! I went to this party, and guess what? Tom Hanks was on hand!”
Pedestrians - DMV babble. They were people before they stepped off the curb. They’re people after they step off the curb.
Plagued - Isn’t it funny how politicians aren’t troubled by scandals anymore? They’re plagued! Pharaoh seeing frogs in his oatmeal… that’s a plague. Anywhere else… dump it.
Plunge, Plummet - Ever notice that nobody just falls anymore? Newton’s Law applies. No matter what word you use, you hit the ground just as hard, so keep it simple.
Pursuit - This one’s very big in Los Angeles where news choppers love to follow police speeding down the freeway after some guy who didn’t pull over. But “Pursuit” is pure coptalk. A chase is a chase is a chase.
Rank and File - An old-fashioned print term for union members. Ever notice that “rank and file” has nothing human in it? These are hardworking PEOPLE we’re talking about! Say so.
Recent Memory - “It’s the bloodiest massacre in recent memory”. Admit it. Why do you say “recent memory”? Because you don’t remember! You don’t know if it’s the worst disaster in 10 years, 15 years or 45 minutes! But you don’t want to tell your viewers that, so you fudge. All you’re really doing is telling them how bad your research staff is. If you don’t know the right number, go find out.
Reportedly - Do you know anyone, anywhere on the planet, who uses “reportedly” in normal conversation? If someone is reporting something, say so.
Reeling - Typical day-after-disaster nonsense. As if whole towns can be seen walking down earthquake, flood or hurricane-ravaged streets, spinning and spiraling as they go. Please. Reels are for fishing poles. Just say what the people are doing.
Seen Here - As in, “Michael Jackson, seen here on the left with an adolescent llama….” Nobody in real life says “seen here” to identify someone. Imagine your Aunt Tillie, showing those vacation slides: “And your Uncle Ed, seen here falling off the pier…” What’s wrong with saying, “that’s him on the left”?
Sexually Assaulted - This is a delicate subject, especially when a child is involved. But we’re in the clarity business as much as the truth business, and when someone is raped, molested or whatever, it’s wrong to fall back on coptalk for the sake of vagueness. We should say what happened, as carefully, tastefully and conversationally as possible. No one, in a real conversation ever says, “Oh my God, my sister was sexually assaulted!”
Slain - Dragons are slain. People are killed.
Slated - Maybe once upon a time, frequently occurring events like rallies, movie openings and Jennifer Lopez weddings were written on slates. Not these days. What’s wrong with saying “the protest will take place on Tuesday?”
Speaking Out - For some reason the parents of the missing teenager never just “speak” or “talk” about their ordeal, they “speak out” about it (does anyone ever “speak in?”) Almost as bad as“tells his story” or “breaking his silence.”
Spectacular Fire - “Wow! look at that spectacular fire! There must be 20 people trapped in there! Cool!” Let’s never use positive-sounding words to describe negative events. The dictionary equates “spectacular” with “thrilling”. Fires don’t thrill. Fires kill.
Staffer - “What do you do for a living?” “Oh, I’m a staffer for the Governor.” This horrible contraction has no place in normal spoken English, where regular folks talk about people who work for the Governor, or even people on the Governor’s staff, but not staffers.
Suffered a Heart Attack/Sustained Minor Injuries - Amazing how many folks out there sustain minor injuries, even though they weren’t badly hurt.
Team Coverage - Stuffy, pretentious, and about as non-conversational as you can get. News managers think it conveys importance. Wrong. Committing the resources to cover the story does that. Back in the day, David Brinkley understood. His version was short and simple: “We have two reports, beginning with Marvin Kalb in Washington.” Beautiful, isn’t it?
That, according to; This, as - Where have all the verbs gone? Do you talk to your neighbor this way? “Hey Bob, Sam’s getting a new car… that, according to his wife…” “I hear Marge is going on a diet… this, as her waistline expands…”
Torrential Rain - He ain’t heavy, he’s torrential! Weather stories have their own set of overhyped terms, and this is one of the worst. If you can’t find a more creative way to describe a storm, you’re all wet.
Unanswered questions - Well, duh! Is there another kind of question? Once a question is answered, it’s not a question anymore!
Under Fire - In wartime, maybe. It is sheer exaggeration and silliness to refer to a troubled Congressman, indicted businessman or controversial mayor this way. If someone is criticizing a person or his ideas, spell it out. Save the ammo for the revolution.
Under Siege - When the Israelites surround ancient Jericho, you can call it a siege. But why must writers turn every political, economic, or social problem into Custer’s Last Stand?
Underwent Surgery - only if they’re hospitalized (see above). People HAVE surgery. Doctors OPERATE on them.
Unrest - UnCola. Un-Conversational. Unbelievable that people still use this word in news scripts, when they’d never, EVER use it at home or anywhere else. Angry hordes of citizens don’t run unresting through the streets. They riot.
Vehicle - More Coptalk. Is it a car? A truck? A tricycle? Say so.
Went Terribly Wrong - Ask a typical TV watcher for a reaction to the vacation/bank robbery/shuttle launch that “went terribly wrong”. Folks hear this and think, “oh boy, here we go again, more exaggeration.” Is that what you want to communicate?
White Stuff - Is there some law against saying “snow” twice? If there were, the song would go, “Let it Snow, Let it White Stuff…” you get the idea.
White Supremacist - Putting aside its obviously non-conversational tone, “white supremacist” sounds too lofty. It’s more than those lowlifes deserve. Most of them probably don’t even know what “supremacist” means. It’s also inherently racist. Somehow we never use “supremacist” without “white” before it. Violent radicals of different hues tend to be called “separatists,” as if no member of any non-white race would dare think in “supreme” terms.
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