The Tyrannical Editor: Here Are All the Words and Phrases You Cannot Use

By Jack Limpert

Carlos Lozada, editor of the Washington Post’s Outlook section, likes to write about the words and phrases he has banned from his Sunday section. He has published a list of “200 journalism cliches—and counting” and he calls it “The Outlook List of Things We Do Not Say.”

Okay, some of the banned phrases are too cute for journalism: [Anything]-gate, Christmas came early for [someone], white-shoe law firm, this is not your father’s [anything].

Some seem stiff: Upon deeper reflection, suffice it to say, palpable sense of relief, woefully inadequate.

Tired adjectives: Grizzled veteran, manicured lawns, withering criticism, fevered speculation.

But close to half the Lozada list are words and phrases that can be overused but to me seem simple and direct: At a crossroads, underscores, little-noticed, outside the box, tightly knit, in the digital age, in a nutshell, perfect storm, raised questions, unsung hero, on thin ice, political theater, naysayers, poster child, tipping point.

My experience as an editor was that most of the stories I edited were too wordy and moved too slow. Lots of stories came in meandering along at 40 miles an hour and I figured I could best help the reader (and the writer) by making the stories go 70 miles an hour. Break up long paragraphs, break up long sentences, change long words to shorter words. I must have changed “to participate in” to “to take part in” a thousand times.

Many editing decisions depend on how everything fits together, how the words move along. Sometimes perfect storm or tightly knit can work, sometimes those words won’t seem right.

When talking with a writer, I’d rarely give word limits: “Write the best piece you can. If in doubt, put it in.” Then the editor can bring fresh eyes to the story and help the writer make it the best possible piece for both writer and reader. I can’t see how giving a writer a list of 200 banned words and phrases would be helpful.

As for the Outlook editors, yesterday they may have edited out the 200 cliches but the section reads awfully slow. A few examples:

As unemployment climbed, housing prices fell and the stock market plummeted, erasing Americans’ retirement savings, the GOP completed its third cycle, witnessing the abandonment by the party of its founding principles, the precipitation of an economic crash and a transfer of power to the Democrats. 

Fifty years ago this coming week, the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the panel led by Chief Justice Earl Warren and better known as the Warren Commission, published an 888-page final report that identified Lee Harvey Oswald as the sole gunman in Dealey Plaza and said there was no evidence of a conspiracy, foreign or domestic.

“The key to fairness,” Nancy Shurtz, a tax expert at the University of Oregon, wrote in the WalletHub study, “is not only the redistribution of wealth under the tax systems, but making education and other governmental expenditures equitable.”

A study by financial-services firm UBS concurred: “Independent academic research studies consistently conclude that new stadiums and arenas have no measurable effect on the level of real income or employment in the metropolitan areas in which they are located.”

Each week the Outlook section also has a feature, “Worst Week in Washington.” Yesterday it featured Joe Biden—these were the concluding grafs:

But wait, there’s more! After the rally in Des Moines, Biden stopped by a local diner. He was asked by a reporter whether he agreed with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey’s refusal to rule out American ground troops in Iraq. Biden said ground troops aren’t necessary now, but he didn’t close the door on the possibility — a position counter to President Obama’s insistence that troops won’t be put on the ground.

Then came the week-capper. At a women’s conference on Friday, Biden reminisced about good ol’ days when Republicans like Sen. Bob Packwood served. Packwood, you may remember, resigned in 1995 after 10 women accused him of sexual harassment.

Joe Biden, for kicking your gaffe machine into a gear we didn’t know it had, you had the worst week in Washington. Congrats, or something.

The tyrannical editor should focus less on banning words and phrases and worry more about readability, tone, and boring the reader.


  1. Is the assumption that readers have read all the prior repetitions in a particular newspaper section? That’s a dubious assumption. The online reading majority of The Washington Post do not perceive the existence of an OUTLOOK section anyway. I have looked at the Washington Post home page. The ground-breaking (late 60s?) STYLE section isn’t a category, or a button, or a hyperlink anywhere on the home page. It’s appears subdivided online into LIFESTYLE, ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT. Rules for newspaper “sections” are at best cute.

    • I had a short but tightly enforced list of banned cliches and other usages at the publications I edited. At New York magazine, the proscribed included “Bloomies” for Bloomingdales, “Big Apple” for New York, “Lady Liberty” or “The Lady in the Harbor” for the Statue of Liberty. I insisted that PR people or flacks be so called rather than “publicists.” Restaurants were “restaurants” or, when appropriate, “bistros” or “trattorias.” Tired Yiddishisms like “nosh” and “maven” were banned, too.

      Small gestures, perhaps, but the result was to elevate the prose, if just a bit, and the tone of the magazine’s prose.

  2. I did not know “maven” is a yiddish expression. The transliteration did not click with me. Thanks for the lesson!

  3. Another fine piece, Jack. I agree with your comments about readability, but I also find Lozada’s prohibitions well considered. I haven’t read all 200 of them, but those you cite smell uniformly hackneyed to me. (And Ed Kosner’s banishments are pointed– and, as usual, delightfully expressed.) At EW, I had a few “verboten” words and expressions. The three principal ones were “legend,” “icon,” and “myth” when referring to a performer who had achieved some success and whom the writer admired. I allowed the occasional exception, but I insisted a writer could use the word “icon” only to refer to a Russian object of religious veneration. I banned the kicker “time will tell” because time will always tell. My staffers may remember more of my bedeviling “dicta,” but that’s all that come immediately to mind. (Story length and word limits are topics for another discussion entirely.)

  4. The word that always was edited out…that signaled that the writer should never again write for the magazine:


    Not quite as bad but almost always edited out:



    • I’m curious about “meanwhile” and “however,” Mr. Limpert. I use both somewhat frequently, but I make sure only to use “meanwhile” when I’m actually talking about an event that occurs at the same point on the greater chronological timeline as the event I just described. “However” is a fairly standard transitional word of mine.

      Do you have alternatives you might suggest? It doesn’t seem like “however” is always as useless as, for example, the first two words in “in order to,” which always drives me nuts. Then again, I’ve been wrong before.

  5. Any of these phrases bother you?

    fervently believed

    stock market plummeted

    swirling conspiracy theories

    profound risks

    canny corporate ethos

    my entire body

    effective monopolies

    rely excessively on

    They must be okay because they were in Sunday’s Outlook section.

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