Handle with Care

These are words and phrases that should ring alarm bells whenever you see them. Consider whether they are necessary or correct.

  • admit: This can imply that a person has been hiding something which we are invited to perceive as discreditable eg ‘He admitted that he was a homosexual’.

  • after/when: These are not alternatives. You often see an intro on the lines of this genuine example: ‘A woman whose face was almost torn off after she had a riding accident . . .’ This suggests that she fell off her horse, then someone came along and attacked her. If you see ‘after’ in such a context, ten to one the word needed is ‘when’. Even better would be ‘A woman whose face was almost torn off in a riding accident . . .’ Another example from January 2011: ‘The journalist – who successfully underwent neurosurgery in 1993 after a brain tumour – will now . . .’ This packs an astonishing number of infelicities into a few words. Obviously the woman had the treatment while she had the tumour, not after it had disappeared. If she is still going 18 years later, I think we can assume that it was successful. The dashes should be commas. ‘Underwent neurosurgery’? Is this a police statement? How about ‘who had surgery for a brain tumour in 1993’? This particular story compounded the felony by describing the subject, Julia Somerville, then 63, as a ‘veteran’ newsreader – in a story about accusations of ageism at the BBC!

  • also: Greatly over-used, and you cannot have more than one in a sequence. You could try ‘additionally’ or ‘too’ for a change.

  • And/But/So as the first words in a sentence: This used to be considered the snappy way to write a story, but now it often looks old-fashioned. Keep the use of conjunctions at the start of sentences to a bare minimum. Most certainly, avoid a string of sentences starting ‘And’, ‘But’ and ‘So’.

  • basically/incredibly/massively/fantastic/awesome/amazing/totally/absolutely: Should almost never be used in narrative as they sound like words a child or teenager would use. OK in quotes if you must.

  • begging the question: This is also known as a circular argument, involving making a firm conclusion on the basis of an arguable proposition. For example: ‘Why did God make parasitic worms?’ This begs (or avoids) the question of whether God exists. This is obviously a very specific usage, and suffice it to say that 99 times out of a hundred the writer actually means to say ‘this raises/leads to the question . . .’

  • best-loved: As in ‘Some of of Britain’s best-loved birds/flowers/trees/butterflies are under threat . . .’ In one ridiculous example, one of the ‘best-loved’ birds was the heron. The truth is that most readers would be hard-pressed to name two butterflies or whatever, let alone place them in order of preference. Changing it to ‘Some of Britain’s best-known . . .’ won’t work either. July 31, 2016: Now I have seen everything. Mail Online has ‘Britain’s best-loved pond plant, the water hyacinth.’

  • blonde/brunette: Would you make a point of mentioning a man’s hair colour? If not, don’t do it for a woman. Do not use ‘blonde’ as a noun substitute for ‘woman’ unless you wish to cause offence, or unless the woman positively defines herself as a blonde. Incidentally the male version of blonde is blond. And please, never use ‘flame-haired’. For more on this sort of thing, see the Political Correctness section.

  • brilliant: Almost all young people who die while still in education are said to have been brilliant. Use cautiously.

  • Britain: Reporters often use Britain superfluously. Obviously you need it if you are comparing Britain with other countries, but if the story is only about this country, you probably don’t. Ask yourself if the reader could possibly think the story was about Chad or Outer Mongolia. The same applies to Britons.

  • brutal: As in ‘brutal murder’. The number of ‘gentle’ or ‘kind’ murders is very small.

  • close friends: As in ‘Sir Elton John celebrated his birthday with 2,000 close friends’. Ridiculous.

  • cool: Sums of money are not often cool (you could get away with ‘a cool million’, but not ‘a cool £16,520’), and they are never ‘to the tune of’.

  • coruscating: Often misused in the belief that it means ‘blistering’ or ‘vicious’, as in ‘he made a coruscating attack on the Prime Minister’. In fact coruscating means glittering, like a diamond. The word the writer was striving for is probably ‘excoriating’.

  • courage, bravery: The media cannot do without these words. However, courage is usually being afraid to do something, but doing it anyway, often for the good of another. It is courageous to enter a burning building to rescue a child. However it is not brave to survive an operation, a car crash or bereavement. Babies cannot be brave. Animals act on instinct or training, and so should not be called brave except in the most unarguable cases. The idea of a brave pigeon is ludicrous, but I have seen it several times. All the above applies equally to ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’. When sportsmen and adventurers are involved, better words could be ‘bold’ or ‘daring’, since they are normally doing their activities to please themselves. It may be argued that terrorists could be described as courageous because they believe they are helping their chosen cause, but this is likely to upset many readers. Be careful about alternatives such as guts, plucky, nerve etc. It would look ridiculous to describe the holder of a VC as ‘plucky’.

  • deliberate: ‘He made a deliberate attempt to smear the MP’. We can assume it wasn’t an accidental attempt, so leave out ‘deliberate’.

  • described as: Often unnecessary, as in ‘the wanted man is described as white, with long greasy hair’. It’s just as good without ‘described as’. On the topic of descriptions, you do not need to say 6ft ‘tall’. The figure obviously does not refer to his width.

  • dump, head, climax, nuts: These are among the words that can make an innocent headline into one they read out on the News Quiz.

  • eating and drinking: Often stories start on the lines of ‘Drinking red wine can cure you of cancer’. What else are you going to do with the wine? Bathe in it? Pour it over your head? Usually you can lose the ‘eating’ or ‘drinking’.

  • first ever: As in ‘the first ever survey of the mating habits of worms’. There are occasions when ‘first ever’ can be justified, but not many. Usually ‘first’ is enough.

  • first: As in ‘The couple first met at youth club’. ‘Met’ in this context incorporates the idea of ‘for the first time’. So does ‘introduced’. Do not use ‘met up’ or, even worse, ‘met with’.

  • flagship, as in policy. This is greatly over-used.

  • fun-loving, vivacious: Rightly or wrongly, these are long-established codewords for a woman who has had multiple casual sexual partners, so be careful.

  • girl: It can be very tempting to use girl instead of woman in a headline because it takes up so much less space. However there is a limit to how old a girl can be, and I would say it is about 27 or even younger. The oldest I ever saw was ‘Smallpox girl, 42’.

  • hand-picked, as in ‘He told an audience of 60 hand-picked guests’. So, not some riff-raff dragged in off the street.

  • headings based on recent films or TV series: At one time every story about nurses in the papers referred to them as ‘Angels’, after some long-forgotten TV programme. Another which ran and ran was ‘Perfick’, from The Darling Buds of May. Don’t hammer such ideas or they rapidly turn into cliches.

  • icon: Among the most over-used words of the last ten years or so. One favourite example was ‘High street icon Tesco.’ Give it a well-deserved rest.

  • in order to: ‘to’ is almost always enough.

  • in/over/during the course of: ‘during’ is nearly always better.

  • infant/toddler: An infant is aged up to six or eight weeks, then it would be a baby. A toddler is a child just starting to walk, which is typically at around a year but may be quite a lot earlier or later. Do not use toddler for a child of more than two. Measure ages in weeks until about eight weeks, and months until 23 months. Unless it is relevant that a child is two years and four months old, measure ages in whole years after two.

  • innocent, as in ‘innocent victims of the attack’. Apart from being a cliche, it might not be true.

  • ironic: In theory, irony is the use of words to express something different from their literal meaning, for example ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ It is like sarcasm, but gentler. Irony can also be used to describe a situation such as ‘Water, water, everywhere nor any drop to drink.’ A modern definition of irony is ‘a state of affairs or event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and can be wryly amusing as a result’. So it’s not a word you often need, though this will not stop writers using it all the time when they want to say strange, coincidental, surprising or paradoxical.

  • it has emerged/it emerged last night: Usually this is intended to give a more up-to-date feel to a story that someone else has already published, but I don’t think it works and nine times out of ten you can safely lop it off. The same applies to ‘it has been revealed’ and ‘it was revealed last night’.

  • job titles: Often stories describe Fred Bloggs as ‘chief executive’ of an organisation, or ‘acting deputy manager’. Usually ‘Fred Bloggs of Thisandthat Ltd’ is quite enough. Think whether it is going to make any difference to the reader to be told the subject’s exact role, or if it is sufficient to know that he or she represents a certain organisation.

  • just: This appears more and more in quotes. Lose it wherever you can. 

    This is an example from the Daily Mail in 2009, in a story about a bride who bought her wedding dress on eBay:

    ‘It was just I didn’t want to spend a fortune on the wedding because it’s about more than just the marriage.

    ‘We just wanted the basic things that meant something to us.

    ‘It was the first time I’d ever used eBay and I just happened to find my dream dress. I just put in a bid for 99p.’

    On the subject of just, it is not an alternative for ‘only’ when the meaning is ‘a surprisingly small number’. To say ‘she is just three’ means she has just had her third birthday, not that she is ‘only’ three and therefore rather young to be joining Mensa. In almost all instances it is better to use ‘only’ if you mean ‘only’.

  • last night: If we are to believe all the stories which have 'last night' in the intro, virtually every news event occurs after dark. In these days of 24-hour rolling news, readers are aware of when things actually happen, and you can’t get away with tagging ‘last night’ on to every intro. It is also feeble to try to make a story sound more immediate by adding ‘last night’ to the intro. For example, ‘The Queen was facing a constitutional crisis last night . . .’ If she was facing a constitutional crisis last night then she will no doubt still be facing it this morning, and a simple ‘is’ will suffice.

  • late, as in dead: Recently I saw ‘the late George Best’. This is silly. Only someone who has been living in a cave for the last decade or so could not know that George Best is dead. You need it only when someone has recently died, and there is a possibility that not everyone knows, as in ‘The seat was held by the late John Smith’, or when the people in a story are not well known, as in ‘Mr Smith took over the farm from his late father’.

  • later/earlier/then/at present/subsequently/currently/eventually: Often unnecessary. The classic example is on the radio traffic reports when they say a road is closed because of an ‘earlier’ accident. What else could it be? One that has not happened yet? A well-constructed narrative should not often require the use of ‘then’. For example, it is redundant in the sentence: ‘The burglar then escaped through the window.’

  • like: ‘You should eat fruit like bananas and pineapples’. There are no fruit like bananas and pineapples. You mean ‘such as’.

  • literally: Do be careful with this or you can get some silly images, such as ‘He was literally walking on eggshells’ or ‘He literally exploded with anger’. I love this genuine example recently sent to me: A family welcoming back an absentee ‘literally rolled out the fatted calf’.

  • local: Usually not necessary. For example, ‘He took the injured cat to a local vet’. It would be worth remarking if he drove 200 miles to the vet, but unless we are told otherwise we can assume it was one nearby. Similarly ‘local residents’.

  • luxury/exclusive: As in hotels, holiday resorts etc. These words are occasionally needed but do be sure they are justified. On the other hand, ‘his £10million home’ almost certainly does not need qualifying with ‘luxury’.

  • made famous by: Beware of claiming that certain events or phenomena have been made famous by films or books. One story about the school curriculum said: ‘Latin, made famous by the film Gladiator . . .’ January 2012: ‘The edelweiss, made famous by Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music . . .’ And: ‘Red squirrels, popularised by Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin’.

  • miracle: A media staple, but it must be treated with real care otherwise the currency is debased. I think it should be restricted to quotes unless talking about religious beliefs.

  • mum/dad/kids: These words have an inescapably downmarket feel, so avoid them if you are writing for a non-tabloid audience. If they are used, they take a cap only if you are addressing the subject, as in ‘Mum, you need to cut down on the wine’, or using it instead of a proper name, as in ‘I told Mum she looked like mutton dressed as lamb’. Otherwise it is lower case, as in ‘I saw my mum coming out of the betting shop’.

  • new, as in new report, new survey etc. The fact that it is in the ‘news’ suggests that it is new. Even worse is ‘new jobs will be created’. That is a good example of a tautology, covered more fully in the Grammar section. Do not say that somebody set a ‘new’ record.

  • people: Ask yourself if the average reader could suppose the story was about giraffes. Often you can lose the word altogether, such as ‘the tsunami, which killed 1,200’, or use an alternative such as ‘those’, ‘householders’, ‘customers’, ‘playgoers’, ‘fans’, ‘drinkers’ etc. A prime example in January 2011 was ‘a survey of people’s use of the internet’, which would have been better as ‘a survey of internet use’.

  • pool of blood: You need it sometimes, but it is greatly over-used.

  • pretty/attractive/beautiful: As in ‘the pretty student’. Take care, especially if there is a picture, because everyone has different ideas about good looks and many will not agree with you. Think whether you would put the equivalent word for a male subject, and if not, lose it. There is often an implication that a crime or accident is somehow worse if the victim is pretty/attractive/beautiful, and this is unacceptable. The victim’s appearance, rightly or wrongly, may be the reason the story is in the news, but you should not make this blatantly obvious.

  • reality show/TV: The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent are often referred to as ‘reality shows’. They are not: they are talent shows. Reality TV is (or should be) a fly-on-the-wall documentary. I’m a Celebrity and Wife Swap etc are loosely reality shows for want of any better description.

  • schoolboy/schoolgirl: If a child is aged five to 16, he or she will almost inevitably be a schoolboy or girl, and it is usually unnecessary to say so.

  • shock: Use sparingly.

  • speaking: For example 'Speaking yesterday at his home/from his hospital bed, he said . . .’ ‘Speaking’ and ‘said’ duplicate each other. Make it ‘Yesterday he said at his home . . .’ One recent horror: ‘Speaking before his speech, Mr Clegg said . . .’

  • special: An over-used word, as in ‘specially trained officers interviewed the victim’. What is the alternative? Rookies? Amateurs? Greengrocers doing a shift as policemen? Daily Mail, April 29, 2009: ‘The Odeon cinema in Leicester runs special discount screenings for OAPs every Wednesday’. The word ‘special’ is unnecessary. Indeed, so is ‘cinema’. I would prefer ‘pensioners’ to OAPs, too. Apart from that, it’s fine.

  • staggering/eye-watering/jaw-dropping: Reporters are endlessly astonished by numbers, and these adjectives are much beloved to describe almost any figure. They should be severely rationed. On a similar theme, reporters will unhesitatingly use plummet/plunge/slash/soar/leap for infinitesimal changes. ‘Increase’ or ‘decrease’ will often be more accurate.

  • stepfamilies and adoption: If a man and woman with children from previous relationships marry, he becomes stepfather to her children and she is stepmother to his. The children become stepbrothers and stepsisters to each other (they have no biological parents in common). If this couple go on to have children together, the new children and the older children are half-brothers or half-sisters to each other (they each have one parent in common). If a single man or woman has children by different partners, the children are half-brothers and sisters to each other (again, they have one parent in common). If a couple adopt a child, they are his or her parents but if it is strictly relevant to the story, you can call them adoptive parents. If they have several unrelated adopted children, these are adoptive brothers and sisters to each other, and to any biological children the couple might have. (See also twins, below.)

  • supermodel: What is the definition of a supermodel and how does she differ from a common or garden model? It's hard to pin down, so unless you are sure, call her a model.

  • top/leading: Greatly over-used to refer to doctors, judges, scientists etc.

  • trademark: Be very careful with this if you want to use it in the sense of ‘distinctive’. Recent stupid examples include ‘Hitler’s trademark moustache’ and ‘horse chestnut trees, with their trademark conkers’. In June 2015 Mail Online managed a variation on the Hitler theme: ‘With his instantly-recognisable toothbrush moustache and trademark side-parting . . .’

  • tragic, tragedy: We all know this is over-used but it’s a media stock-in-trade. Just be thoughtful about how you use it, and don’t say ‘the tragic toddler’ or ‘Tragic Tommy Smith’.

  • twins: A source of many pitfalls. They can result from one fertilised egg splitting, in which case they are identical, or from two eggs being fertilised at the same time, in which case they are ‘fraternal’ or non-identical twins. (Fraternal applies to boys, girls, or one of each.) Please do not point out that boy and girl twins are non-identical, or say ‘the twins, who both turn 14 on July 1’ or ‘two twins’. Triplets, quads and other multiple births can be any combination of the two processes described above. For example, quads may comprise identical and fraternal twins. (See also stepfamilies and adoption, above.)

  • under way: As in ‘an inquiry was under way last night’. Use it if you absolutely must, but never make it ‘underway’. I would prefer to see 'being held' or 'was continuing'.

  • unwittingly: Often used but almost never needed, eg ‘He was unwittingly trapped in a sting operation’, ‘Raquel Welch unwittingly revealed she was wearing a wig’. It’s obvious that they didn’t know or they wouldn’t have allowed it to happen.

  • very: Very often redundant.

  • well: For example ‘You may have thought that blah blah blah. Well, you would be wrong.’ This chatty form is increasingly seen, but should be used very sparingly. If you are certain that it is the way to go, ‘Well’ must be followed by a comma.

  • what is: Possibly the ugliest construction yet devised, eg ‘What is thought to be the biggest rodent has been discovered’ or ‘Boris Johnson made what is being acclaimed as a great speech’. There is nearly always another way to write the sentence, so find it.

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Last updated March 26, 2017