Words are my business, so maybe I’m a little more sensitive than some people are about how words are used — and misused.
For example: Newspapers recently reported on a tough new immigration law that the state of Arizona passed. They reported that this law “would make it a crime to be in the country illegally.”
Wait a minute. If a person is in this country illegally, isn’t that a crime, by definition? I’m sure there are lawyers out there who will split that hair, but still the phrasing struck me as odd.
Then there’s the report that the U.S. government has once again demanded the immediate release of three American hikers who have been detained in Iran for the past nine months. The same report further stated that Washington is asking the Iranian government to issue visas to the trio’s family, so they can visit the detainees.
Sounds as if the State Department doesn’t expect our demand for the hikers’ release to be taken seriously by Tehran any time soon.
For many years my hackles have risen whenever I see or hear the phrase “free gift.” All gifts are free, aren’t they? What kind of a gift would it be if you had to pay for it?
I understand the reason for this redundancy. If the advertiser merely says “gift” it doesn’t have the punch of “free gift.” Wow, a free gift! I get something for free and they’re nor even going to charge anything for it! Shakespeare would weep. So would Mrs. Jaffe, my eighth-grade English teacher.
Words can be cutting, too.
Wernher von Braun was the brilliant but ruthless engineer who built the V-2 missiles for Nazi Germany that bombarded London during World War II. After the war he came to the United States and was a major help in building the massive Saturn V rocket, which launched American astronauts to the moon. Von Braun wrote an autobiography in which he stressed that his main interest all through his life was to help the human race reach into space. While working for Adolf Hitler he got into trouble with the Gestapo because he was suspected of devoting more time to space launchers than weaponry.
Von Braun titled his autobiography, “I Aim for the Stars.” More than one wag added. “But mostly I hit London.”
Words have power. When used properly, clearly, they can move and inspire people. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal … .” While the Declaration helped to move Americans to fight for their independence, later critics have pointed to the cynicism of slaveholder Jefferson’s words. What most of these critics do not understand is that Jefferson’s original draft contained an attack on slavery which several of the Southern states adamantly opposed.
Faced with the possibility that those states would refuse to vote for independence, Jefferson allowed the passage to be excised from the Declaration.
Four score and seven years later, President Abraham Lincoln gave moral meaning to the Civil War in his Gettysburg Address: “ ... that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom … .”
Words have power.
It seems especially important to me that the men and women who write the news for the general public should be particularly aware of the responsibility they bear to speak clearly. When I was a copyboy at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the city’s morning daily newspaper, one of the elder editors took me for a walk through the residential neighborhood behind the Inquirer’s building. Working men were coming home for the evening, many of them sitting on the front steps of their narrow row houses, reading the evening newspaper. It seemed clear that for many of them, reading took a considerable effort.
“If you want to be a newspaperman,” the old editor told me, “your job is to take the most complicated things happening in the world and write about them so clearly that they can understand them.”
Quite a responsibility.
Words have power.
Use them with care.
Bova is the author of nearly 125 books, including “Able One,” a technothriller. Bova’s website address is www.benbova.com