Writing significantly

Jan. 18, 2010
As writers, journalists become products of accumulated correction.

As writers, journalists become products of accumulated correction.

To write well, after all, is partly to avoid mistakes of grammar, punctuation, usage, and other essentials. To avoid mistakes, writers must know one when they see one. Most writers outsource development of this skill.

Here's how it works: A writer submits his or her lovingly crafted copy to the tender mercies of an editor, who makes changes. (This process sometimes is known as disimprovement.) Then, especially with young writers, editors generously give voice to grand rulings that fix themselves in habit.

As a result, to take just one example, experienced journalists never write the word "approximately." "About" is shorter and therefore preferable. Journalists who don't adopt this prohibition on their own eventually encounter an editor eager to make the needed adjustment.

The word "around" won't do in this context, either, by the way. Editors will quickly tell you it means something different.

Even writers who wonder about the reasons for doing so find themselves writing "about" when they wish to express approximation. The alternative is automatic redaction, which feeds on itself. All writers know that once an editor makes a change, other alterations follow. So they write "about" every time.

Amplifying this effect is a natural migration from trade to academia, as journalists earn graduate degrees and become professors of news writing and editing. From such noble perches they can transfer their correction-shaped skills to whole classes at a time.

Subtle machinery

This machinery is subtle but comprehensive. Inevitably, however, incorrect corrections propagate through it.

Scores of journalists, for example, still believe the word "none" requires a singular verb, as in "None of the writers writes well."

Somewhere, sometime in the past, some editor—probably one who went to night school and became a journalism instructor—divined that "none" is a contraction of the singular phrase "not one."

Yet the word's prime definition is "not any," which can require a plural verb, depending on what follows the phrase. So it's okay to write, "None (not any) of the writers write well."

This revelation has caused some writers to wonder why they invested all that tuition money in journalism school. The unenlightened, thanks to some assuredly administered correction of the past, would rather swallow a wasp than follow "none" with a plural verb.

At Oil & Gas Journal, this editor is pressing a campaign against the venomous word "significant."

The adjective means important in the sense of full of meaning. Confined to that definition, it offers no offense. How else would you discuss significant digits?

But lazy writers don't stop there. They modify all manner of nouns with the word—and verbs with its adverb form.

You don't need to look hard to find sentences such as these: "Economists expect a significant increase in oil demand." "Oil demand will increase significantly."


If the expected increase in oil demand were not significant, the writer wouldn't be writing about it. The reader needs to know what makes the increase significant. Is it historically large or small? A reversal of decline? What? It's on that point that the writer should focus.

The adverb form, "significantly," is just as vacuous. The verb phrase "increase significantly" deploys two words and seven syllables to express nothing more than a direction of change.

It's better to use short, stout verbs like "jump," "leap," or "soar," or, for a tamer tone, "rise," or "increase" with a percentage. The English language offers many options.

The problem, of course, is that choosing the best verb requires work. The writer must make a precise decision about the intended message then find the word that states it best. This task is not easy. It requires thinking and writing at the same time. Not everyone can do it.

But anyone can type lame monstrosities such as "increase significantly" onto a computer screen and plod blissfully on to the next heap of hollow syllables.

You're infected

If you have read this far you are infected. You will begin to notice how often "significant" and "significantly" appear in text, how much space they occupy, and how little they contribute to meaning.

And when you write, as you begin to type one of those abominations, a message will flash in your subconscious: There's a better way to say this.

You have been corrected.

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