Many, many years ago when I first walked into The Herald-Dispatch newsroom, editors let me know a couple of things. One was that we were to write stories with the reader in mind. The other was that we were to be very careful with how we used language.
An example of the second was when the late Dave McGuire was reading something I wrote and said in a loud voice, “Jim, we can let everyone know the man is a liar without using the word ‘however.’”
In terms of traffic engineering, I was expected to know the difference between an intersection and a junction. When I covered Huntington city government, I learned the difference between a tax and a fee.
Another, which I picked up on later, was the difference between a viaduct and an underpass.
A local TV station loves using “viaduct” to describe what we have at 8th Street, 10th Street and elsewhere in town. After every heavy rain, the viaducts flood. Right? Wrong. According to the dictionary we use, the viaduct goes over the underpass, and the underpass allows vehicle traffic to pass under the railroad tracks. Thus, the underpasses flood, not the viaducts.
As I tell young reporters, if the viaducts flood, the entire city is in trouble.
Now as one of two newsroom survivors of those days, the other being sportswriter Tim Stephens, I have a reputation for insisting on the correct use of terms, with “underpass” being one of them.
The reputation extends outside the newsroom. A few years ago a Twitter user saw something about viaducts flooding, and he said he expected me to make a pedantic comment about it.
Pedantic: An unnecessary emphasis on minor or trivial matters; a narrow-minded adherence to a set of arbitrary rules. Hmm.
I might have described my insistence on “underpass” as being picky or snooty, or maybe condescending, but pedantic? For an everyday writer, maybe. For a professional writer, no.
Our editors constantly drilled these things were drilled into us, the same as knowing the difference between “that” and “who,” or “that” and “which,” or for that matter the difference between “between” and “among,” among others.
As I tell youngsters who will listen, language is a tool of our craft. If carpenters or plumbers were to come to my house and use their tools the way some reporters use language, I would be reluctant to recommend them to my friends.
True, we all have things we can’t seem to get right, such as how to form the plural of certain words. There are simple problems that trip us up, too, such as getting names right.
There are a couple of people whose names I must double or triple check because I just can’t seem to remember them. When I make a careless mistake — and it happens — it hurts.
Different reporters have different strengths, and different editors have different strengths. It takes all kinds to make a good newsroom. From the first time I drew a paycheck for being a journalist to the present, I’ve been blessed to have worked with some good ones.