Readers dont agree on much when it comes to matters political, artistic or humorous. But those who contact me about the use of language are nearly unanimous: Keep it proper and precise.
By DEREK DONOVAN
The Kansas City Star
An excellent recent example came to my inbox after The Kansas City Star ran an Aug. 9 Associated Press story about the possible discovery of two new pre-human ancestors. The story mentioned humans genus, or class, called Homo.
I hope many of my fellow zoologists have commented on this article, wrote my emailer, pointing out that the same continuum of terms that includes genus also has its own classification with the name class. She felt the sentence equated the two, when genus is a subclassification of class.
I contacted the AP reporter, who confirmed what I suspected: He used class as an explanation, though he is aware of the scientific word. There are many bits of technical jargon and scientific terminology that can have multiple meanings. To me, a general-interest newspaper should target the widest audience possible, and since class has a very commonly understood meaning in the everyday lexicon, I think many readers would be confused by a clarification in this instance. I decided not to run one.
My original emailer disagreed with that call, though, noting: This goes back to my idea that the newspaper is a tool of education, and this article provides miseducation. I can respect that.
But readers thoughts on language apply to much more than scientific terms, such as language people deem too informal. Ive heard protest over transcribing going to as gonna in a quote, not to mention when a reporter uses that non-traditional contraction (or is it a portmanteau?) in his or her own voice.
And then theres the question of vulgarity and profanity. Some readers are absolutely against it in any case, no matter how mild. One recent caller told me (multiple times) he was extremely disappointed in The Star for running a column by Sam Mellinger that said Royals owner David Glass is misunderstood because of his own damn fault.
Another reader emailed me about a quote in a story about exterminators who deal with bat infestations.
It sounded like a pissed-off squirrel with wings, said one source.
I find it very offensive and do not think that seeing it in print in the newspaper is acceptable, wrote the reader. The meaning would be the same if you had used ticked-off. True, but in that case it would no longer be a verbatim quote, so the reporter would have to find a way to write around it.
While I understand some readers expect everything in a newspaper to be appropriate for elementary school children, I know others feel no subject matter or words should be entirely off limits. I do sometimes get notes saying The Star is too reserved. For instance, Raspberries to the Kansas City Star for a lack of courage! after a euphemistic reference to the punk group Pussy Riot as three Russian musicians.
Sometimes readers point to word choice that may be inadvertent. One copied me on email to Emily Parnell about a term in her Aug. 8 column in 913: I enjoyed it as I often do. But if you are not aware, the term buggered it all up is not something which should be spoken or written in polite company. The first word is English, which has extremely deviant sexual meaning. I was appalled, having lived in the U.K. for 20 years, to see it in the newspaper.
I cant speak for the columnist, but I would bet she was thinking of the icky but not profane boogered up, which many of us remember from childhood. It means messed up and is closer to what the context of the column suggests than the sexual definition.
Our language preferences are idiosyncratic, to say the least. These wont be the last observations I hear from readers.