Here’s an idea to improve newspaper copy: At the beginning of their print careers, journalists get 10 index cards apiece. On each card is written the word “special.”
Every time a journalist uses a “special” in print, he or she has to spend a card. Once all the cards are gone, that’s it. No more, ever.
“Special” is not a bad word, not like the f-bomb or a slur on someone’s ethnicity.
But it is a freeloader, lumpen and slothful. It parks itself on a sentence’s couch, eats all the Cheetos and does no meaningful work.
Of course there’s no AP rule that says: Special (adj.) Do not use.
The word must be tolerated in proper nouns (Special K), in idiomatic phrases (special education, special prosecutor), and in direct quotes. It can be used humorously, too—though I’d count humorous uses against each journalist’s allotted 10.
In most other cases, “special” needs some tough love.
Take the church notes, a list we run each Saturday of coming worship events.
When it’s my turn to copy edit these, I do a computer search for “special” and then spend a few empowering moments hitting delete.
“Special music will be performed by the Happy Christian Gospel Quartet.”
“The Rev. Mary Calvary will bring the special morning message.”
“The sermon will be followed by a special breakfast prepared by the youth group.”
Presumably the music, the message and the breakfast are “special” because of who’s providing them. We’re saying who. So “special” is redundant. Delete. Delete. Delete.
“Special” pops up in stories, too—often when reporters are trying to sound enthusiastic about something they don’t find all that interesting.
The organization is “holding a special exhibit and silent auction.” What kind of exhibit? A special one. Ooh.
The volunteers will end their day with “a special dinner and recognition ceremony.” Why does this make me think of cat food? Maybe because I remember this commercial from the 1970s: Yum.
The children’s choir didn’t win first place but “received a special commendation.” No ordinary commendation for these kids.
Maybe I am a grump. I’m pretty sure I am a grump.
But I say if that’s the best adjective a writer can come up with, the thing being described as “special” probably isn’t.