News writing is supposed to be the embodiment of perfectly produced prose. However, the reality is that it is the source of more grammatical, contextual and typographical mistakes than probably any other professional writing genre.
Few are spared, whether they are experienced journalists with high-quality literary skills or rookies with limited vocabulary. All journalists would admit to having certain weaknesses that are manifested in their work. None are immune to mistakes.
Some media outlets employ tougher editorial standards than others but the gatekeepers are all human and mistakes inevitably sneak through.
However, there is a difference between genuine mistakes and errors that defy the language. Unfortunately, there are still many bloopers in print, television and the Internet that are the result of ignorance.
Because no one picks up on these errors, they are allowed to perpetuate and, after a while, these words, phrases, syntax or misspellings morph into acceptable entities, while its original correctness fade.
When learning how to write like a journalist, many cadets are not taught basic language rules. Although there are plenty of examples, here are just four common mistakes that writers all over the world continue to make.
Dilemma – You see this kind of sentence quite often: “He faced a dilemma on whether he should go to Harvard or Yale". Wrong! I’ve also read dilemma being written as synonymous with problems. Again, wrong. Dilemma is when you have only two choices and both are undesirable. So, if you have a choice between jail and a big fine, then you are in a dilemma. If you have a choice between a promotion at your current job and more money in another job, then that is not a dilemma because both paths are attractive.
Enormity – It appears the traditionalists may be losing the battle when it comes to this word. Enormity, in its original meaning, does NOT mean huge. It is not the noun for enormous, which is enormousness. Enormity actually means the quality of being outrageous, or wickedness. However, it has been so commonly used to refer to great size, it appears even dictionaries have given up because I’ve seen recent editions include both meanings.
Alternative – This is another word to do with choices. However, alternative refers to only ONE other choice. If you are unhappy with your job but you have one offer from another company, then you have an “alternative". If you have two other job offers, you have “other choices" or “options" but NOT “other alternatives".
Refute –At one time, the newspaper I worked for banned this word because a building full of so-called experienced journalists from Britain, United States, Canada, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were consistently getting it wrong. Refute cannot be used as a synonym for deny. To deny something is to say you didn’t do it. To refute is to prove you didn’t do it with evidence. In addition, don’t confuse refute with rebut. Rebut means to argue to the contrary using evidence. To refute is to use that evidence to prove and win your argument.
These are only four examples from many in news writing . While it is understandable for amateurs or part-time writers to get it wrong, news writing professionals should know better. Mind you, it happens to the best of us and it is simply a case of learning as you go along.
Nazvi Careem is an experienced journalist, writer and writing coach who has written for newspapers, magazines and global news agencies such as Reuters, Associated Press and Agence France-Presse. To download a free chapter from his book on the secrets to writing news, check out his website dedicated to news writing.