I have been a student of the Associated Press Stylebook since admission to the journalism school at the University of Illinois my junior year of 1973, although I had a very difficult time during those years when "employe" had only one "e" at the end. (Photo by Steve Pokin)


In the beginning was The Word, and for me that means not only the Bible but the bible of my profession, the Associated Press Stylebook.

To this day, I groan when I read a news story with the words “completely destroyed” or hear TV reporters say them.

The word “destroy” should not have a modifier. The word already means complete and total destruction. It is redundant to say “completely destroyed.” It is confusing to say “partially destroyed.”

While I’m at it, here are a few other things that I see too often and which I consider writing and/or editing mistakes.

The word “unique” should not have a modifier. The word means one-of-a-kind. It is confusing to say “somewhat unique” or “most unique” or “very unique.” It is either “unique,” or it isn’t. Sort of like pregnancy.

When an event is being held for the first time, don’t call it the “first annual.” Instead, call it the “inaugural,” the “first one” or the “debut.” The organizers might plan to hold it every year, but you don’t know if they will or not. Wait a year — and if the organization is still in business and we’re not in a pandemic — then call it the “second annual.”

The phrase “new record” is redundant. If it wasn’t “new” it would not have been a record. For example, Usain Bolt of Jamaica set the men’s world record for 100 meters in 9:58 seconds. You don’t need the word “new” in that sentence.

Don’t use the phrases “past history” or “prior history.” All history is in the past or happened prior to now.

Don’t confuse “less” and “fewer.” If you can count the items you are writing about —such as people — use “fewer.” If you can’t count the quantity you are writing about — such as the air in a room — use “less.”

Don’t confuse “farther” and “further.” “Farther” means physical distance. You can measure it. “Further” means an extension of time or degree. Here’s the difference: He walked farther into the woods to further contemplate his next move.

Journalism pet peeves

A more personal bias of mine is that I see a growing number of retirement stories in which the age of the person retiring is not given.

Retirement is a major juncture in life — with age-related factors like Social Security and Medicare for many people — and the age when it happens is, in my view, a vital part of any news story on retirement.

There’s a major difference, for example, between:

John Smith, 41, said farewell to co-workers Friday as he entered retirement. And:

John Smith said farewell to co-workers Friday as he entered retirement. He is 103.

And if Mr. Smith had anything to say, for example, about the Great Depression, I think it’s important to know his age because his information is first-hand. The age is even more important if the retirement story does not have a photo of the retiree.

As a reporter, in my view, you have to at least ask for the age and if the person does not want to reveal it, then let the reader know. “Smith declined to state his age.”

This brings me to a broader rule of reporting: make sure to ask questions you know your readers will be asking themselves.

But here’s where some reporters go wrong. If the source declined to answer, they don’t then convey that fact to readers, leaving not just a hole in the story but also leaving the mistaken impression the reporter never even thought to ask a most basic question.

Let the reader know:

“Smith declined to explain why he left his $1.2 million job in the Silicon Valley to open a candle shop in Greene County.”

And before I would even send that story to my editor, I’d be running Smith through all kinds of databases.

That’s just me. I remember each and every embarrassing time in my career when I did not.

This is Pokin Around column No. 87.

Steve Pokin

Steve Pokin writes the Pokin Around and The Answer Man columns for the Springfield Daily Citizen. He also writes about criminal justice issues. He can be reached at spokin@sgfcitizen.org. His office line is 417-837-3661. More by Steve Pokin