CJR Outbox

Ban these words

November 11, 2019

Language is ever-shifting; fights over grammar, however delightful, betray the essential dynamism of the written word.

That said, journalists must be stopped. 

Maybe it’s our assimilation into the absurdities of the internet, the unearned ease with which the industry adopts and wields Black slang in copy, or just the mundane reality that we— journalists, humans— love to destroy good things. 

But there are some words and phrases that have been abused in journalism, and no longer mean anything at all. Here begins a campaign to keep them off the page.

  1. Woke: Cease and desist. Just don’t. I’m begging you. There is no longer a way to use this word that is not either vague or patronizing or both. You’re not using air quotes but your tone is.
  2. Content: ???????? What is the thing. Say the thing.
  3. Unprecedented: This is almost never true. Don’t be dramatic.
  4. Problematic: Substitute this word for one that accurately describes the behavior of whatever person or institution you’re referring to. 
  5. Disrupt: Mostly we use this word to describe people or companies whose behavior, on the whole, is destructive.
  6. “The issues:” This is often used in political reporting as a placeholder for “problems.” Consider the “issues” discussed during primary debates: gun control legislation and healthcare, for example. These are problems–the routine violent death of Americans via bullet, lack of access to affordable healthcare. Calling them issues, which softens their urgency and betrays the actual point of politics—to solve problems—is a disservice. Our commitment to vagueness is tiring.
  7. Nondescript: Giving up on a description while making that description. Either describe the thing, or don’t.

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Alexandria Neason was CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Recently, she became an editor and producer at WNYC’s Radiolab.