Grumblings from the Writing Grouch

By Mike Feinsilber

Three eyebrow raisers from the Washington Post of Monday, September 23, 2013:

1.  From a page one story about outside groups pumping money into the Virginia gubernatorial election: “Environmentalist Tom Steyer, Todd Ricketts, son of former TD Ameritrade chairman Joe Ricketts, and hedge fund manager Robert Mercer are using groups called super PACs to pump their personal resources into the state.”

The writers would have made it easier on the reader by putting all of the tags behind the persons’ names rather than putting two in front of the name, one after.

A better way:  “Tom Steer, an environmentalist; Todd Ricketts, son of the former chairman of TD Ameritrade; and Robert Mercer, a hedge fund manager, are using groups called super PACs to pump their personal resources into the state.”

Putting the names first, the identities second, gives readers a break; they know at once that they’re reading a list of names. Small thing, but consistency helps.

2.  From a front page story wrapping up the see-saw season of baseball’s Washington Nationals: “The Nationals aren’t officially eliminated from postseason contention yet, just practically so.”

Be cautious about the adverb “officially.” It is often misused. There’s nothing official about the Nationals’ potential finishing place. “Authorized by a proper body” is the way the dictionary defines “official.”

True, “officially” is often used the way Barry Svrluga, a skillful sports writer, used it here, but frequency doesn’t make it right. Maybe “aren’t quite eliminated” or “aren’t yet eliminated” would have served. We need a word to do what the misused “officially” is doing here; my thesaurus is unhelpful.

One unfortunate usage we still see is the lead that consists of two words: “It’s official.” What it is is meaningless.

3.  A page two photo caption which leads with a surprising quote about President Obama (“Because really, deep down, he would have been an architect had he been as talented and creative as all of you”)  and follows with: “First lady Michelle Obama, speaking Friday about her husband at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Awards ceremony, according to a pool report.”

My irk here is with the term “according to a pool report.” How many people don’t know what a pool report is? I’d guess many.

When a prominent person appears at a government event which can’t accommodate a mob of reporters and technicians, by prearrangement a small pool of press people—a few from the writing press, a few from broadcasting, a photographer and TV cameraman—cover the event for the rest of the press corps and report back to the rest, either in writing or verbally. That’s the pool report.

Strange to the point of bewildering it is that the Post felt it necessary to attribute such a straightforward event to the pool. If the Post didn’t trust the pool report, it could have listened to a pool reporter’s tape. This attribution is akin to saying “The 24th of September will be a Tuesday, according to a calendar.”

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