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Choices: The Choice of Language

Just as authors must choose what to say, they must choose how to say it. The choice of content and language are closely related. Choices of content and language reflect and reinforce each other.

On August 31, 1998, after an unprecedented three-year period of rising prices, the stock market dropped 513 points, the second largest point (as against percentage) drop in history at that time. For USA Today, it was an exciting day at the office:

The Dow Jones industrial average [the most common stock market performance indicator] plunged 513 points Monday, erasing all of its 1998 gains as investors fled a global crisis that is upending the longest-running bull market in history.

The Dow's 6.4% decline to 7539 brought its six-week loss to 19.3%, less than 1% shy of an official bear [selling] market. It now is down 5% for 1998. Damage was even greater in the broader markets; the Nasdaq composite [another stock performance indicator] dropped 140 points, or 8.6%, to 1499 in its worst-ever point decline.

"Dow's yearly gain gone on Wall Street,"USA Today, September 1, 1998, http://www.usatoday.com/money/mphotof.htm. updated 02:21 AM ET.

A reliance on statistics lends an objective tone to the coverage. Nevertheless, the pattern of terms
plunged… erasing… fled …upending …down …dropped …worst-ever point decline
clearly emphasizes the fall of the market.

Other newspapers viewed the event differently. The opening paragraphs of the news articles below provide essentially the same information (content), but they tell somewhat different stories, implying different implications and consequences. For the Austin American-Statesman, it was a particularly dramatic day:

The stock market's summer swoon turned into a dramatic rout Monday as the Dow Jones industrial average plunged more than 500 points, its second-worst point drop in history. Stocks now teeter on the edge of their first bear market since 1990.

James F. Peltz, "Dow dives 512 points,"Austin American Statesman, September 1, 1998, p. 1.

The selection of dramatic terms (summer swoon… dramatic rout…plunged… teeter on the edge…) cannot be missed. A writer for The New York Times saw the event in a more psychological vein:
Gloom, fear, pain and queasiness. Around the nation, anxieties ran high yesterday as investors big and small watched the jagged lines fall and much of the year's profits evaporate in a breathtaking 512-point plunge on Wall Street. Many called it scary, but almost no one seemed ready to panic.

Robert D. McFadden, "It's Disturbing, to Put It Mildly, But Investors Say They'll Hold On,"The New York Times, September 1, 1998, p. 1.

Gloom, fear, pain and queasiness…anxieties…breathtaking… plunge… scary…panic. The choices of content and language focus more on the reaction of investors than on the stock market itself. A pattern of terms of adverse psychological feelings is apparent. The choice of terms invariably shapes how a topic is portrayed. All of the above articles convey the fact that the stock market dropped significantly. All of the articles also interpret the significance of that drop through their choice of language. Indeed, there is no way to convey the information without coloring the report in some way! To use bland language would itself downplay the significance of the event.
The stock market average dropped 513 points yesterday. It had dropped by more once before.
How we say something is often as important as what we say.

Related Topics
Choices: The Ingredients of Texts


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