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Words matter, and many in the media could stand to be more careful with them

Words matter, and not just because I and several of my best friends make our livings, such as they are, from slinging them.

I admit to being cranky about English, but I'm not one of those word-Nazis whose panties twist every time they see "thru" or "lite," nor do I turn up my nose at newly minted slang--in fact, I love it. What I do get snitty about is maintaining the meanings of words. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Word choice is crucial to meaning. There's a theory that not a single word in English is equivalent to any other word in both sense and association. "Car" doesn't mean the same thing as "vehicle." "Approximately" can't always stand in for "about," and you can't use "pitch" for "throw" except in certain, specific instances. And so on. Try finding an exact synonym for yourself. It's like the word that rhymes with "orange."

The specificity of words becomes important when you get to the news. Journalists too often reach for sorta, kinda the right word and settle for it. This is bad, not because it looks bad, but because it means we get sorta, kinda the facts. Take this recent sentence from a local publication that shall remain nameless. (I'm being circumspect, because some people have described the Weekly's treatment of this publication as "petty," even "vicious," and have implied that it has something to do with the fact that many folks who work for this paper have been fired, more or less, by that one. Aren't people silly?)

OK, so let's look closely at a sentence from a story about the fires on Mount Graham: "The fires ... are also now targeting private cabins at Turkey Flat, radio towers on Heliograph Peak and the Forest Service's Columbine Work Center." "To target" is a new-ish verb, and not a pretty one, but that's not the trouble. Can a fire "target" things? Doesn't "targeting" imply choice and intention? Terrorists can target structures, I suppose, but do natural phenomena really have the brains for it? Could the writer mean "are headed for"?

Unless, of course, this was a demonic, Smokey Bear-type fire actually trying to wipe out those sacrilegious, squirrel-threatening scopes. Come to think of it, the Apache did tell the UA not to build up there.

But that's another story. Let's look at another example of slippery usage--this time highly suspect--from wire reports about the recent Pentagon call-up of veterans. These poor, screwed-over people were consistently referred to as "former soldiers," the Pentagon's preferred term, for two days. Then the Washington Post finally took a deep breath and used the v-word. Yes, "former soldiers" denotes "veterans," but "veterans" has a connotative kick that the administration did not want in this particular context. The language of politics always and everywhere needs careful inspection, because it is almost entirely manipulative. This is why the White House calls a report of five Marines getting blown up "a challenging news environment." Most of us would call it bad news.

But let's not get all partisan or anything. Plenty of bad English has no agenda, no flavor of persuasion: It's just stupid. Take the evening news. (Please.) Reporting on the death of Marlon Brando, a local reporter told us "After he won an Oscar for On the Waterfront in 1954, he won another for The Godfather." The reporter was very young, and undoubtedly the world before 1990 is a big blur to her, but that use of "after," while not technically wrong, is radically imprecise: It's like saying Christ was born after the end of the last ice age. True, but. Another recent example from a newscast that rarely interrupts its coverage of elective medical procedures, floods and pets with anything resembling news was an anchor who identified Texas as "a neighboring state." (There was a story about a flood somewhere in the state, you see.) This, too, belongs to the category of sorta right, but only if you're willing to take "neighboring" as meaning "in the neighborhood" or "nearby." I say we give the guy the benefit of the doubt on geographical knowledge and assume that his mistake was solely linguistic. However, it's still nearly 300 miles short of accuracy.

Poor New Mexico, deprived of all existence by no less an authority than KVOA. It used to be just too far from God and too close to Texas.

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