word usage

So-called ‘writers’ misuse ‘so-called’

Because it actually has two quite different meanings, one of them loaded, the phrase ‘so-called’ is particularly tricky to use in news copy, where we’re supposed to be neutral.

Most people know without thinking about it that ‘so-called’ has two meanings. Both are a spoken way to signal quotation marks. But the first signals jargon the listener may not be familiar with, or sometimes an imposed nickname, as in this example.

Republican Stacey Campfield is the sponsor of the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill–it’s the same measure he unsuccessfully pushed for six years as a member of the state House.

The second meaning is the one that jumps to mind whenever the phrase is used without context.

The so-called ‘healing centers’ are really nothing more than a con game, preying on the desperate.

Of course, it’s this usage–loaded with sarcasm–that should be avoided in straight news copy.

But because it’s the same phrase, and the context doesn’t always make it crystal clear which meaning is intended (see my first example), it’s generally better to avoid its use altogether. Luckily, there are a few good alternatives for the neutral, jargon-introducing version.

Republican Stacey Campfield is the sponsor of what some are calling the “Don’t Say Gay” bill–it’s the same measure he unsuccessfully pushed for six years as a member of the state House.

Other alternatives that can be used (depending on the context) include “…what’s known as…” and “self-described.”

Add a comment if you think of any others.

what some are calling