Word choice and reader knowledge

Journalists should write with vocabulary most readers possess

We use words because they articulate what we want or need to say (we hope). But how do you know that your audience knows the same words you do? What assumptions are you making?

To discuss this, we must abandon the “imperial we” that this column usually employs, because the anecdotal evidence comes from “me,” the author.

In an online group seminar that I give a couple of times a year for the Poynter Institute’s NewsU, participants are asked to try to identify factual errors in news articles, one of them about a plane crash. Each time that article has been used, over a few years, several participants always highlight one of two words that they don’t know: “fuselage” and “stanchion.”

Keep in mind that these participants are not young, inexperienced journalism students: Most are midcareer, some with more than 25 years’ experience in newspapers, broadcast, corporate communications, and other high-performing positions.

How many of you don’t know one or both of those words, or aren’t sure what they mean? How many have used them? (Let’s hope there is little overlap between those two groups.)

The first couple of times those words were highlighted, I thought it was an aberration. But to have them highlighted every time the exercise is offered, by such diverse participants, raises questions: If many communicators don’t know these words, how can we expect our audiences to know them?

Judged by Nexis, which focuses on mainstream media, we make that assumption regularly: In the past year, in US newspapers or their online equivalents, “stanchion” and “fuselage” have both been used about 1,000 times, in publications ranging from small community papers to the behemoths, mostly without definition or enough context for people to make intuitive definitions. (To be fair, many references are in wire stories, not locally originated.)

That may not seem like a lot, but it’s a thousand opportunities to confuse readers, which is a thousand opportunities to lose some.

“Stanchion” is the most problematic. It has appeared when a hockey puck “got a bounce off the stanchion and it went right to the player,” (that from a coach); when a driver fell asleep and “downed a traffic signal stanchion”; when a fisherman visited “the combined 48 miles of bridge stanchions” to see where the prey were; when cows in old dairy barns “had a stanchion and they were locked in”; and in Thanksgivings built on “the stanchions of memory.” Someone might be able to figure it out from all those uses, but a single one gives fewer clues.

It’s difficult to know what your audience knows, of course, but the basic advice of using simple words instead of more complicated ones comes into play. Are there similar words that are likely to be more familiar to your audience? Can you slip in a definition or context that is helpful but unobtrusive?

With “stanchion,” the substitution is easy. “The stanchions holding up the basketball net” could become “the poles holding up the basketball net.” The New York Times Magazine did it deftly in an article about the Netflix series House of Cards: “He was very concerned about the placement of the stanchions, those metal poles with velvet ropes clamped to them that are used everywhere to herd people …”

The challenge is greater for “fuselage,” since the word is used almost exclusively in reference to the long metal tube to which an airplane’s wings and tail are attached. But using a phrase like “the main body of the plane, its fuselage,” allows you to use “fuselage” with abandon—for that article, at least.

In some ebooks and news websites, readers can hover over a word and find a definition, either through a popup or a click-through to a linked dictionary. That’s one way to handle it (and finding out which words are clicked more frequently can help you learn what your audience knows). But that interrupts the reader and does not help print readers; while journalism’s goal is to educate readers, making them look things up may not be the best way. Instead, try to anticipate readers’ needs and find a simpler way to convey the information, at least before hitting them with a more expensive word.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.