My dislike of trite words and phrases is personal: When I was a reporter for several years prior to jumping over the journalism fence to the PR side, a “kindly old editor” told me, “Son, if you want to keep working for me, stop using trite phrases in your copy.” And he tore up my story. Lesson Learned. Thus, when I managed PR accounts, I would never approve a press release with trite words.
During and after my nearly 25 years at Burson-Marsteller, where I played key roles on a variety of significant national and international sports and nonsports accounts and traveled internationally with high-ranking government and Olympic officials as a media consultant, every story an account executive gave me that had a trite phrase was given back for rewrite. I easily could have made the edits myself, but felt that using a dictionary or thesaurus, instead of spell-check, would provide a valuable teaching lesson.
Today, trite phrasing, what I call “trite speak”—some of which are probably used because the perpetrators can’t explain the meaning in simple, clear language—are all over the media landscape. Sadly, some are now accepted without objection. Perhaps because so many of our current news people never “came up the ladder” the old-fashioned way without having a “kindly old copy editor” expelling their stories “to the scrap heap.” Or maybe it’s because they think using “inside baseball” trite words are cool.
In the past, I often told people who reported to me to think like a journalist. Today, my advice is to think and write like a journalist does for the New York Times or Wall Street Journal or other major pubs and never use trite words or expressions used by cable TV reporters.
According to my unscientific survey, below are some of the most used trite phrases that you’re certain to hear, mostly by radio and cable TV newscasters and “pundits, but not by journalists of major pubs when they guest on the programs:
- It’s been a long winter, but spring is in the air.
- The cherry blossoms (in Washington) are unreal.
- You couldn’t ask for a better weekend.
- Poorly organized.
- Heat Index.
- Cold front.
- Clean the swamp.
- Throw the rascals out.
- All politics is local.
Political policy decisions
- On his watch.
- Is on the wrong side of history
- The optics are bad.
- Bullpen by committee.
- Shot gun formation.
- 60 is the new 50.
- Doesn’t look a day over.
- Still sharp as a whistle.
- Exit strategy.
- Boots on the ground.
- Targets of opportunity.
- Bold flavors.
- Full-bodied flavor.
- Explodes in your mouth.
- Double-dip recession.
- The Fed.
- Free market.
- The market is a good barometer.
- The market is in a correction.
- The market is oversold.
- In a family way.
- X months along.
- Passed On.
- Laid to rest.
- Left us.
- Stifling our economy.
- Soaking the rich.
Not paying their fair share.
There also are some” iconic” trite phrases that not only have outlived their usefulness but aren’t relevant “at this point in time”
- Unfortunately, they are still frequently used by cable political reporters and sports commentators.
- Politics: Labor Day is the official beginning of the election season. (Not true since the advent of the 24/7 cable news shows.)
- Too big to fail: A favorite of critics and supporters of the tax payer bailouts. Unless you are preparing for a career as a sound bite writer, don’t use it, unless you’re explaining a specific example.
- Sports: The team that is in first place on July 4th is a good bet to win the pennant. Never true, but especially since baseball went to the playoff system.
- Work in progress: This phrase is a favorite of sports journalists, but also is used across the journalism spectrum.
Of all the trite phrases used by the media, a case can be made that the ones below are the favorites because they are so frequently used by all commentators, regardless of the topic:
- Social media: I know it hasn’t been around nearly as long as those expressions above. But the term has evolved into a trite “one-size-fits-all” expression. Isn’t it about time for the media to be specific about which facet of social media that they are talking about? Way too often they don’t.
- ObamaCare: A phrase used by the president’s political enemies to cast derision on the legislation. Never has a phrase that I can remember become so trite so fast because of constant use.
- It’s a win-win: It’s a no-no, unless used in a quote that fully explains the reason for saying so. A close relation, also needing an explanation, is “on the right track.”
- Rock star: Not necessary to be an entertainer to be awarded this label.
- Damning with faint praise: With friends like that, etc. etc.
I understand that many of the above words and phrases have been used so often by so many in the media over so many decades that they have achieved “inside baseball” status; people have grown up reading and hearing them and have accepted them. But that doesn’t make it correct. Maybe it’s time to “clean up the act.”
Yes, if you’re an on-air “pundit,” a speech writer, advice giver, a sports reporter or a talk show host, trite words can be occasionally used as long as the meaning is made clear to the uninitiated audience. But they should not be used when discussing serious subjects like the “state of the nation,” “life and death” or “making a killing on Wall Street.”
A writer of press releases should follow the advice given to me by that “kindly old editor” early in my newspaper career: “When you write a story, do not use any ‘inside baseball’ language. Write as if a reader doesn’t know anything about the subject of your report. Use proper English.”
The same is true when writing PR stories
The object is not to show what a skillful or colorful writer you may be. It’s to get the stories used by the media, so avoid using hackneyed and “in words.” Write it concise, write it straightforward, and make certain all your facts are correct. And then make certain you pitch the correct media person. Doing so gives you a much better chance of getting a “hit” than “shot-gunning” it.
Two rules of my own that I always use when writing or editing, is that when writing nonfiction, which your press release hopefully will be, is that if a word isn’t in a current dictionary or thesaurus, don’t use it. Better still, use the reality test: Run the word or phrase pass people you know that are not knowledgeable in the subject you’re writing about. If they’re not certain of what you mean, sub another word. And if a person has to “read between the lines” to figure out what a trite expression or word refers to, don’t use it.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “…but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I’ll add to that trite phrases.
And since this is a column on not using trite-speak phrases or words, I’ll sign off with three bits of advice:
- Don’t take seriously everything said by a “pundit.” That know-it-all word is used mostly by cable TV anchorpersons when speaking about their supposedly Renaissance-like colleagues who are supposedly knowledgeable about every subject “under the sun,” when in reality they are just expressing an opinion.
- I wish all of you to “Have a good day” and importantly
- “Stay Healthy,” which has become the most often used trite phrase since the coronavirous pandemic.