The Writing Grouch Reads the Post and Times

By Mike Feinsilber

Mills’s daughter, Marie, indicated that her father would’ve said, “Can’t we send them back for training?’ He would’ve hated for folks to lose their livelihoods over this. He would’ve given them a second chance.”

1. What’s wrong with that sentence?

It comes from a Washington Post story about the aftermath of the tragic failure of firemen in a Washington fire house to do anything when asked by passersby to aid a man who had suffered a heart attack across the street.

What’s wrong is the vague word “indicated” rather than “said.” Indicated is a crummy substitute for said, but we see it often. Maybe journalism students are still taught not to use a word more than once in a sentence. That’s a shibboleth that will not die. But it is silly. “Said” is neutral, precise, and invisible. You can use it a dozen times and no one will care. How does one “indicate”? With a shrug? A nod? A wink? If that’s the case, the writer ought to say so.

If you guessed my objection was to the writer’s use of “would’ve,” I won’t argue with you. This story was about a father’s death; it didn’t call for such informal language. Marie is quoted as using “would’ve.” If she did, fine. But the writer shouldn’t’ve.

2. On ABC’s “The View” this week, Mr. Biden said that Mrs. Clinton’s decision about a run would not affect his. “Whether she runs or not will not affect my decision,” he told Barbara Walters. “I have absolutely not said no. I’m as likely to run as to not run.”

What’s wrong here?

The repetition. The New York Times website writer first tells us what Biden said then tells us  again. Does the writer think we won’t believe him unless he gives it to us inside quotation marks? If the writer feels obliged to use a quote—an obligation felt far more often than necessary—he could have just started the quote with Biden’s next sentence: “I have absolutely not said no.  I’m as likely to run as to not run.”
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Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor, and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.

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