Question from the gallery: Guidance on use of the word “evacuate”

Evacuate means to remove the contents of a building, stadium, room – any place capable of holding contents.

It also means to give up military occupation from an area of danger. Cut and run, in other words.

People cannot evacuate.

Do not say, “John and Tom evacuated the bar when the fight broke out” unless you physically carried furniture, liquor bottles and injured patrons out the door and onto the sidewalk.



Using “they” as a non-gender-specific singular pronoun

It’s OK to use “they” as a singular pronoun saith the AP and others.

This trend has caused the same sort of reaction among some of my journalist buddies that those godawful wooden tongue depressors cause me every time a medical professional crams one down my throat to look at my tonsils.

Nausea, gagging and a full-body case of the willies. I can’t even eat popsicles on a wooden stick, either. Enough about my neuroses.

Think of it as an upgrade from saying “his or hers” and “he or she,” when you don’t know the specific gender of the person who robbed the convenience store, gave the anonymous big tip to the harried waiter or waitress, or whose qualifications are being described on a job-search site.

They/their/them have for centuries served as gender-neutral pronouns  – The Oxford English Dictionary’s first reference dates to 1375. Shakespeare did it, and Shakespeare was awesome.

Don’t let using second-person  objective-case pronouns in the singular nominative get you all in a lather. This  goes in and out of style, like bell-bottom jeans. Well, with any luck luck, bell-bottoms won’t come back, but there’s probably a kid in Portland wearing a pair right now and all the others are looking on, going “Hmmmmmm, Yeah.”

And you don’t have to do it every single time, just when alternative wording is awkward or wordy. Clarity is always priority No. 1, so don’t look at it as an order. It’s a tool to make life easier for your readers.

And as AP advises, if you are doing a story about a person who identifies as neither male nor female and ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her, use the person’s name instead of the pronoun, or reword the sentence. When they/their/them is required, explain that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun.

Just relax, write it and let Jordan roll.



Misspelled words make you look like a goober

Arithmetic is better than language, because if you plug in the wrong number in an equation, the answer is obviously wrong. The bridge falls down, the bank repossesses your Honda, the landlord comes over and padlocks your door.

It’s a beautiful thing, math. Its punishment is swift and complete.

But when people misspell words, they don’t know. They look down at the mangled sentence they just wrote, smack their lips with satisfaction and say, “Behold the wonder I have wrought!”

Writers are arrogant, even bad ones.

Here’s a list of some of the commonly misspelled words. Pound them into yourselves. Cut your finger and put salt in the wound to keep yourself awake so that you can study deep into the night so you won’t bring shame onto your house.

accommodate – two Ms

Terrific – two Rs, one F

Bellwether – Not “weather.” A wether is a gelded ram, and they put a bell around the neck of the smartest one so the jingles lead the herd.  It’s a cruel world. But you already knew that.

Conscience – “You can’t CON SCIENCE!” Har har har.

Grateful – Not greatful.

Inoculate – One “N.” Tip: It only takes one Needle to inoculate somebody.

Kernel/colonel – The first has to do with popcorn; the second with a high-ranking military officer.

Millennial, millennium – Millions of people misspell this word.

Misspell – One “s” for mis, one “s” for spell

Pastime – one S

Precede – it means to go first. “Lead the way and we’ll precede” is the way you can remember how to spell this word, which is often mistaken for “proceed.”





Look what they’re doing to their book over there.

Memorize that sentence. If you can’t memorize, have it tattooed on your arm so you never forget the difference in their, there and they’re.

Mixing up those words is the most shit-kicking error a writer can make, and immediately brands the individual as someone not to be trusted, confided in, or spoken to except when absolutely necessary.

This mistake will make you look like a hick, a buffoon, a basement blogger in a bathrobe drinking beer at 8 in the morning who is not a basement blogger drinking beer at 8 in the morning who also happens to be a laid-off copy editor.

There – a place, which means it’s a noun.

Their – possessive, which means it’s an adjective.

They’re – They are – which means it’s a verb. The apostrophe is the tip-off.

Their it is. See how awful that looks? Don’t let this happen to you.



It’s pleaded, not pled

With so many high government officials getting charged with crimes these days, the past tense of the verb “to plead” has seen a lot of use in news stories.

It’s an important verb in news writing in general because people are prone to misbehave – as all reporters know – and wind up pleading to this and that all the time.

So when we have to write about what a person did before a judge, I’m pleading with you, please say, “Mike Flynn pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI.”

“Pled” is not really wrong, according to the dictionary, and for reasons unfathomable, so is “plead,” the same spelling as the present tense only pronounced differently.

It makes me think the good folks at Webster’s New College Dictionary and Mirriam Webster one day after a few sherries threw up their hands and said, “Damn these people, they won’t do right. Just spell it any way you want to, you dullards!”

AP Style stipulates “pleaded,” and there a lot of good reasons for that, if you need any.

It’s pretty much impossible to misunderstand or mispronounce if you are reading for broadcast.  Adding “ed” to verbs to make the past tense is the most common way to do that in English, so it’s easy for harried writers to remember, once they have it pounded into them by hard-ass old copy editors who keep blue-lining “pled” and “plead” in their copy.

If you want to argue, this is not the place. I will not hear you. Nor will the few well-trained, competent copy editors who still have jobs in the swiftly declining journalism business.

Do the right thing. Be a pro. Now shut up and go back to work.