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Bad influences are everywhere; be strong, writers!

Stretched high atop and across various interstate highways in Illinois is a distracting electronic sign that is used to convey timely information to motorists about road and weather conditions that might affect driving.

These days, as the winter season gives way to construction season, the message is more than a warning; it's a threat.

Hit a worker
$10K fine
14 yrs in jail

Journalists who are properly trained to edit everything – restaurant menus, church bulletins, street signs, etc. – realize that the state wouldn't put you in jail for 14 years.

The state would put you in prison.

As the AP Stylebook explains, prisons house felons, while jails confine people convicted of minor offenses.

Of course, jails temporarily hold pre-trial detainees who are accused of serious crimes, but their post-conviction sentences are served in prisons – penitentiaries and reformatories – known in these genteel times as “correctional centers.”

Professional writers need the discipline to avoid being influenced by weak conversational vocabularies as reflected by roadside signs and other pedestrian-level purveyors of language.

For example, a news release showed up this week for a “media availability” in Rockford involving three regional politicians.

The statement promised the candidates would “discuss the outcome of the election, plans moving forward, and what lays ahead in Congress for the year.”

Writers and editors often have their own troubles understanding lay and lie, but they should have a better understanding of language than do political flacks.

Still, journalists' confusion can be reinforced by such popular – if improper – usage.

Publications do it to themselves, too.

One newspaper last week published a letter to the editor in which a writer was allowed to say this:

Politicians don’t have anything to offer, so they just criticize each other to show us how strong their principals are. Principals aside, what we want is solutions to the ever-building problems of modern life.

School principals can be strong, but the writer clearly meant principles. The editor did the citizen writer, the newspaper's readers, and his own staff no favors by allowing such confusion to be printed.

Another newspaper has recently published headlines referring to a trouper as a trooper, and using hone in when home in was correct – language errors that professionals should not make.

No, it's not easy getting it right in a world where it's often presented incorrectly.

But language is our business, our primary tool. We need to know how to use it, despite bad environmental influences.


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