Writers Talk About Writing
Unequal Rights: All Synonyms are Not the Same
We welcome back Merrill Perlman, who writes the "Language Corner" column for Columbia Journalism Review. Here she explains why journalists should appreciate the special connotations of seemingly synonymous words.
Strunk and White's Elements of Style counsels to avoid euphemism, and, as we wrote on the book's fiftieth anniversary, some journalists seem particularly fond of calling a dog a "canine" or a banana "an elongated yellow fruit."
But the caution in E of S is about using "a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able," cuts both ways, as using a ten-cent word to describe a twenty-dollar concept can mislead readers just as much.
Say the word "eatery," for example. What's the image that jumps to mind? A restaurant, sure, but what kind? Is it a diner with linoleum counters and vinyl booths? Is it McDonald's? Is it a restaurant with white tablecloths and a hushed air? For many people, the first or second is more likely to be associated with "eatery" than the third. Yet here is the New York Post, writing that the Palestinian delegation to the United Nations dined at a "swank eatery on West Broadway in TriBeCa." Those two words clash, even in a tabloid.
If you say you're going to see a "film," many people would envision art houses, Fellini or independent productions. A "movie," though, is more like Contagion, than Caligula. This is not to say that you can't call Contagion a "film" or Caligula a movie, but that your context, tone and audience should guide you.
Some journalists attend "press conferences" while others attend "news conferences." Is there a difference? A subtle one, perhaps. The senator summoning reporters on a slow news day to release information that could have been released almost any time sounds more like a "press conference"; the briefing by the police chief on the missing child is more like a "news conference." The Associated Press Stylebook says to use "news conference"; The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage does not specify a preference, but uses "news conference" throughout.
When those reporters are through with the conference, whether press or news, they write something: a "story" or an "article." Again, the difference may be subtle. A "story" outside of journalism can be anything from a fairy tale ("Read me a story, Daddy") to a lie ("She made up a story about why she was late"). An "article" can also be a piece of something — an "article" of clothing, "articles" of incorporation — as well as a word for what journalists produce. Interestingly, Webster's New World College Dictionary defines "article" in that sense as "a complete piece of writing, as a report or essay, that is part of a newspaper, magazine, or book," but its thesaurus specifies that an "article" is "nonfiction appearing in a periodical."
When you use synonyms, think about their connotations, the associations people make with them. And remember that nearly every time, a banana is just a banana.