Thursday, September 4, 2003

I Decline

Newspaper writers too often lean on tired, stereotypical language.

An annoyance to me is using the word “decline” to mean “wouldn’t.” The usage will be familiar to anyone who has read a news article about the police or politicians.

“The detective declined comment about the allegations.”

“The governor’s aides declined to elaborate on his remarks.”

The reporter softens the blow by using “decline.” There is something wanly elegant suggested, as if a hack politician’s aides told the reporter: “Sorry, old chap, but I have to decline to answer your frightfully on-point query.”

People (except for those in P.G. Wodehouse novels) don’t talk that way. They certainly don’t talk that way to nosy reporters. The aides probably said “no comment,” or “are you out of your *bleepin’* mind? I’m not answering that!”

These people are refusing our requests. They are turning down reporter’s questions. They don’t want to tell readers what’s going on. Don’t allow them to hide behind the fussy “decline.” Tell it like it is:

“The detective wouldn’t comment on the allegation.”

“The governor’s aides wouldn't elaborate.”

When I first wrote up this gripe, I suggested "refuse" as a word editors could substitute for "decline." After chats with peers and much deep meditation, I retract that suggestion. "Refuse" has a negative, forceful connotation that we can't be sure of most of the time.

If you are certain the source refused to comment (let's say, in the *bleepin’* way I imagined above), go ahead and say that. But as editors, we seldom know such context. "Wouldn't" is value-neutral and still more straightforward than "decline."