Effusive suffixes

Adding -age to a word may sound fancy, but it's usually unnecessary

A marketing website offered a course called “Storytelling Through Reportage Video Production.” “Reportage is defined as the act of reporting news,” it said. “A wider way to describe reportage is as the journalistic style of factual representation e.g. in a book or other media, including video.”

In other words, “reportage” is “reporting.”

You’d think that the last thing the world needs is another word for “reporting.” The verb “report” became a noun courtesy of that “-ing” suffix, which indicates a continuous action (think “running,” “talking,” etc.), or one that has become the name for the act: Think “driving” not as the actual act of driving, but as the general word for the performance of that action.

The “-age” suffix, though, is a bit more subtle. It marks a collection, a process, an aggregation. The “wordage” of a piece is the collection of all its words, at a higher plane than just “wordcount.” We might call the system of driving “drivage.” (Please, let’s not.)

In other words, reporters “report,” an act called “reporting,” part of the larger universe of “reportage.” The Oxford English Dictionary says that meaning of “reportage” goes back to an 1878 citation: “Among the modern inventions which he detested was the custom of reportage, the industry of interviewers, and of the spies of the tattling newspapers.” (Some things never change.)

Confused? Here’s some crap that might help, if it doesn’t confuse you even more.

We have “sewers,” the noun for the places where the crap goes. The crap that goes through the “sewers” is “sewage.” And the broader system of all that “sewage” going through all those “sewers” is “sewerage.” So the city council votes to fix not the “sewage system,” but the “sewerage system,” meaning the sewers, the sewage and all the crap that is so included.

These hoity-toity names are everywhere. They are not railroad tracks; they are “trackage.” The information placards that provide directions and labels are no longer “signs”; they are “signage,” even when there’s just one or two.

These are all real words, and they have a place and a purpose. But the “-age” suffix is often added in an attempt to elevate a word above its mundane counterpart, and that often makes it sound like jargon.

You can call it the “sewer system” most of the time, and no one will be confused. Go ahead and call them “tracks,” and you don’t need to use “signage” unless you’re reporting on the philosophy of sending people places via “signs.” (Even then, maybe confine it to quotes.)

Remember, too, that pronunciation of the “-age” suffix varies. “Signage” sounds more like “SINE-edge,” while “reportage” is often given a French accent, like “reh-por-TAJ.” That adds to its air of over-the-toppage.

One common “-age” usage is “usage.” But most “usage” authorities warn that “usage” is not a good synonym for “use.” “Whenever use is possible, usage shouldn’t appear, ” says Garner’s Modern American Usage, putting that “usage” at Stage 3 of the five-stage Language-Change Index.

Even so, many of these “-age” words grow through common “use” into standard “usage.” No one looks at you funny if you say “postage,” as they might if you used “reportage.” Of course, you could just say “stamps.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.