When I first wrote for the Bangor Daily News in the 1970s, reporting (as Kathryn Swanson) to Presque Isle Bureau Chief Dean Rhodes, the newspaper’s managing editor, Marshall Stone, wrote a weekly column about writing, editing and resolving the ethical dilemmas journalists face. Called Column One, it gave readers insight on the editor’s role and on the craft of writing.
A few years later, when I was editor of the weekly newspaper in Caribou, I would read and discuss Stone’s column with my counterpart at the Presque Isle Star Herald in a phone conversation that became a weekly ritual. His witty and informative columns were an entertaining reward for two people who enjoyed working with words.
In the spirit of Mel Stone, I focus this column on a few words that are misused so frequently, I think he would agree they deserve attention: graduated, entitled, importantly and centered around.
My most comprehensive and authoritative guide in researching these words is the Harper’s Dictionary of Contemporary Usage by William and Mary Morris, known for their syndicated newspaper column “Words, Wit and Wisdom.” The couple polled 136 respected writers, editors, public speakers, educators and commentators for their opinions on usage issues. They reported their findings in percentages of approval and disapproval, and in specific comments of panel members. Equally authoritative sources are my copies of The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White and the Associated Press Stylebook, two books always within arm’s reach of every journalist.
The tide may be shifting as language is ever-changing, but hearing or reading “she graduated college” will never sound correct to me. Colleges graduate students; students do not graduate colleges. They graduate from colleges, or more formally, are graduated from colleges.
When asked if “graduated college” was acceptable, the panel polled by the Morrises voted, “In speech: Yes 15%, No 85%. In writing of an informal nature: Yes 10%, No 90%.”
One panelist commented, “Anyone who would seriously say or write ‘she graduated college’ will never pass freshman English – I hope.” Others said, “Sounds as if you’ve done something to the college – you’ve graduated it forcibly” and “No college should graduate a girl who says this.”
Panelist and television news correspondent Charles Kuralt wrote, “A New-Yorkism, I believe, used by the same people who call it the ‘Port of Authority.’”
The widespread misuse of “entitled” must be recent because the Morrises do not address it in their usage dictionary. I am sure they would if they heard or read that a book was “entitled.”
Even The New Yorker magazine allows this usage, but it sounds silly if you think about the meaning of the word. The AP Stylebook clarifies it quite simply: “Use it to mean a right to do or have something. Do not use it to mean titled.
Right: She was entitled to the promotion. Right: The book was titled ‘Gone With the Wind.’”
When I hear or read a sentence such as, “The truth is evident; more importantly, it will prevail,” I wonder at the use of an adverb, generally used to describe the action of a verb. For example, “The gentleman strutted importantly.”
The panel polled for the usage dictionary voted 75-25 in favor of the adjective “important” over the adverb “importantly,” if, in fact, either should be allowed: “The truth is evident, more important, it will prevail.”
“No one would write: ‘Truth will prevail importantly.’ The adverb has the wrong connotation,” wrote one panelist. Another said, “Probably better to write it all out: ‘What is more important … .’”
Novelist and critic Elizabeth Janeway remarked, “Right or wrong, I never use ‘importantly.’” Other panelists said the usage sounded “affected” and “pretentious.”
Finally, we can envision what is meant by “center around,” or “centered around,” but I inherited an aversion to the expression from a high school English teacher who made us think about the contradictory meaning of the two words. The Morrises agree with her that “center on” is preferable. They offer “revolve around” as an alternative, but I think that conveys a different, more mobile, image.
I know I would never discard my file of Column One clippings, but all I can locate at the moment is a copy of a column I used frequently in teaching journalism. It contains a 50-word spelling test that Stone offered to readers with the invitation: “If you want to, send the results to me. I’ll grade your paper — sometime before we go electronic — and invite you in for an interview if you’re better than perfect.”
Let me know if you would like a copy.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.