The Right Word in the Right Spot

The Right Word in the Right Spot

By Barry Willis

Here’s a snippet of an October 21 CNN news report about the debunked theory that COVID-19 originated in a Chinese laboratory, intended as a potent biological weapon:

The publication of the paper by lead author Li-Meng Yan — an ex-patriot from China seeking asylum in the US — was quickly linked to former White House adviser Steve Bannon, long a strident critic of China’s government. 

Do you see what’s wrong? None of the four writers sharing the byline on this piece, nor the website’s editor—if there were one—saw it, either: the description of Li-Meng Yan as “an ex-patriot from China seeking asylum in the US.” 

While Li-Meng may be an “ex-patriot”—as evidenced by the fact that she’s seeking asylum away from China—what the authors of this piece meant to say was that she is an expatriate, a person living outside her home country. “Expat” is slang for expatriate, as in “Ernest Hemingway lived among American expats in Paris.” A related word is repatriation, meaning to return displaced people to their native countries, as in “After the war, the French repatriated mercenary troops to West Africa.”

CNN’s mistake was probably not caught by many readers. It’s dismaying how few people pay attention to grammar, syntax, spelling, or subject-verb agreement, but that doesn’t give you carte blanche to be lax about any of it. 

The mark of a professional writer is to put the right word in the right spot—and to see where a better one fits. In the case of “ex-patriot” vs. “expatriate,” no spelling-and-grammar checking program in existence would flag either one, because they both work, but one is clearly the correct choice. 

An astute editor—one with keen eyes and ears—could quickly see and correct this, elevating the piece from a bit of throwaway journalism into a polished gem. But skilled writers could too—if they were patient and methodical. Make it part of your work routine to review everything you write so that you’re certain about each word.  Real writers know how to edit, too.