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Three Phrases to Avoid

February 25 2018
February 25 2018

Whether you are writing fiction, non-fiction, a business letter, a legal brief, or anything else, there are three phrases you should avoid. Two of them make you sound like an idiot, and one of them is unnecessary.

One: “Reached out.”

There are times when this childish phrase may have application, such as its variant, “outreach.” One can reach out to a troubled person and try to help them. Fine. But the phrase has somehow come into fashion, particularly with journalists, to replace the words “contacted,” “called,” “talked to,” and others, which mean that you had or tried to have a communication with someone.

I see it in news articles a lot, which really bothers me. I even saw it in the letter Mike Pence’s lawyer wrote to the AP complaining about them releasing Pence’s wife’s email address.

One problem is that it uses three words, when one will do. Why would you say, “I reached out to him,” when you can say “I called/contacted/emailed/wrote to/talked to him”?

It’s also imprecise. What does it mean? I submit that it doesn’t mean anything. To say you called someone has specific meaning. It means you talked to them on the phone, or at least tried to.

“I sent him an email” is specific. It tells us that there was an electronic communication of which there should be a record. And so on.
It also sounds weak and wishy-washy, which I suppose goes hand in hand with it being imprecise. It’s childish and subservient. It’s something a teacher says to a five year old.

Two: “Pushed back.”

I don’t know where this phrase came from, or why it started to be used in place of “responded,” “reacted,” “denied,” “defended,” and such.

It has all the same problems as “reached out to.” It doesn’t tell the reader anything. If one person says something about another, what does it mean to say they pushed back? I submit that it means nothing. There still has to be an explanation of what the respondent said or did, so why not leave it out altogether?

If I accuse you of something, you respond. You deny it. You may even admit it. You may accuse me of the same thing. You may sue me for libel. These things may be “pushing back,” but to simply say that someone pushed back begs the question of what they did for the writer to say that. Just say it in the first place.

Three: “In order to.”

This phrase is not as egregious as the other two, but you should know to avoid it. All you really mean is “to.” “He ran the race in order to win money” is no different than “He ran the race to win money,” except it’s wordy, as it uses three words when one will do.

Bonus: “Slams/Slammed.”

I’ve noticed recently that a lot news headlines and stories contain the word “slammed.” In this context, it means “criticized,” or “said something bad about.” This is new. Like “pushed back” and “reached out,” it is clearly what is being taught in English or Journalism 101. Stop it.
What does using the word in this context mean? For one thing, it’s colloquialism with no place in serious journalism. Can you use it in fiction in this context? I suppose so. In a news article, however, it is not reporting a fact. It is telling the reader what to think about what the person said.

If someone reacts to what another person said or did, I want to know what the person reacting said or did. I will decide whether it was a “slam” or not. That is reporting. If, on the other hand, you the journalist tells me it was a slam, then you are not telling me the news, i.e., facts. You are telling me how I should interpret the news.

Let’s consider an article that has two of these tickets punched. It uses “pushed back” and “slams” in the same short article. Here’s the link so you can read it for yourself. The article appeared in the Washington Times on May 23, 2017. The headline reads, “Sheriff David Clarke Slams ‘political hack Kaczynski’ over Plagiarism Charges.”

I don’t blame the author of the article for this because I assume there is someone at the paper whose job it is to formulate headlines. So, we read the article to see what the author wanted to convey. He wanted to report that Clarke called Kaczynski a political hack for reporting that he plagiarized something in a thesis. Reporting what Clarke said is reporting a fact. Whether it was a slam is a matter of interpretation.

It’s also redundant. To tell me that someone referred to another person as a hack, and then to tell me it was a slam, is tantamount to telling me he slammed him with a slam.
The other ticket the article punches is use of the phrase “pushed back.” I do blame the author for that.

As icing on the cake, the quote of Clarke uses the non-word “alright.” Dear author and/or editor: it’s “all right” always, all the time.


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