Friday, June 17, 2005

October 2004

Sez Who?: Slaying the “widely regarded” beast

By Matt Baron

This column is widely regarded as one of the most impressive pieces of work in the galaxy.

No, of course it’s not.

But my mom lives in Plymouth, Mass., and she thinks I have a decent point once in awhile. And I know at least one guy out in California who takes the time to read it all the way through, if he’s not too busy. Hey, they’re 3,000-plus miles apart, so you might say there is some widely regarding a-happening.

This exaggerated, grammatically questionable and totally made-up example is brought to you by me, humbled sponsor of a sloppy writing decision a few weeks ago. And upon closer examination, it was a sloppy math mistake, too.

It came in a story on a town trustee who planned to resign in the near future. To give readers context, I mentioned that the trustee was “widely regarded…as a viable candidate” to run against the mayor in the spring elections.

Shortly after the story’s publication, the mayor’s spokesman challenged the choice of words. Where was the survey of residents that supported this “widely regarded” phrasing? It didn’t help my cause that a few months earlier I had lectured this same spokesman for using the vague “several” in remarks to me.

At least “several” has a generally accepted finite range. Most folks think somewhere between three and nine when they say, or hear, “several,” that nebulous non-numerical. But what is one to make of this “widely regarded” beast?

I had to admit to the spokesman that he was right, that it was a poor choice of words, and if I had to write the story again, I would choose different words. Of the town’s 85,000 residents, I could not say with any certainty that the trustee was “widely regarded” as a viable candidate for dogcatcher, Man of the Year, or anything else, for that matter.

So what happened? How did the phrase, which suggests an all-knowing author is at the keyboard, slip its way into my story? And how did it get past my editor? I’ve mentioned the phenomenon in a previous Go Figure column ( It’s the hazard of falling prey to a quantitative term snaking its way into a story by wearing non-numerical clothing.

These are Cuties—so-called because they stand for Q.T., or Quantitative Terms. Without even realizing it, we express a mathematical assertion with words such as:

Consistently, constantly, conventionally, customarily, frequently, habitually, incessantly, increasingly, infrequently, intermittently, mostly, normally, occasionally, oftentimes, periodically, regularly, religiously, repeatedly, routinely, seasonally, sporadically, traditionally, typically, usually.

When I compiled that list nearly two years ago, I didn’t think of “widely regarded.” More specifically, I didn’t think of “widely.” After all, merely using the word “regarded” doesn’t have nearly the same charge on its own as when it is paired with “widely.”

It also raises the question, “Regarded by whom?” And that question illuminates the fact that we have a weak, passive sentence in the making. The writing would certainly improve by changing it to the active tense.

For example: “In the past week, since the trustee began telling citizens of his plan to step down, he said about 10 residents have urged him to run for town president.” And the next step would be to get as many of those supporters’ names as possible, track them down, and ask them what they think of the trustee’s plans.

You might be thinking, “But it’s unrealistic to demand that you be able to quantify how many people view this guy as a mayoral candidate!”

The flip side of that argument is this one: It’s unfair to paint such broad strokes without citing a source or having anything beyond a “gut feeling,” which is a fancy way of saying “personal opinion.”

If you are struggling to back up a statement, then it’s time to revise the statement so that it’s something you can stand behind.

Who knows? By following this advice, you may become widely regarded as one of the foremost writers in the world. Just don’t ask me to vouch for it.

BARON BIT: Acknowledge the blossoming flowers, even when weeds surround them. The same spokesman who rightly took me to task for the goofy “widely regarded” phrase leveled criticisms on another story that I believe were totally out of line. While it was tempting to dismiss all of his feedback, I learned a valuable lesson by remaining open to the possibility that he was on the mark about at least one concern.

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