Used and resused: The words and phrases journalists love

By Harriet Anena

If you watch TV and read newspapers ardently or at least frequent enough, you will notice that some words and phrases seem more loved than others. They appear in headlines, in stories and even in captions.

These words and phrases are not necessarily used incorrectly but they have been used so many times that they would be jumping out of our newspaper pages and TV screens in protest if they had a way.

But before we go into the why, let’s look at some of the words and phrases that have been beaten and continue to be battered.

…in a bid to

This is a common phrase used in intros, probably, in a bid to make the story read better? Several examples come to mind, but here are a few:

In a bid to restore calm at the Uganda-Congo border, the Ugandan government has doubled the deployment of the army and police.

In a bid to end domestic violence, government, in partnership with Civil Society Organizations, has launched a nation-wide campaign against the vice.

In a bid to keep promote girl child education, the Ministry of Education and Sports has promised to distribute free sanitary pads in all primary schools starting next year.

…dragged to court

This, you won’t miss in most court stories. The phrase dragged to court carries a lot of weight that the alternative, ‘sue’ doesn’t match it. One can almost feel the pain of the person being ‘dragged’ from their home or office, through a pot-holed road and up the stairs of a court house. It sounds that physical.

A group of former MPs have dragged government to court for failing to pay their benefits amounting to Shs300 billion.


Students of XYZ Secondary School have dragged their head teacher to court on allegations that he swindled money meant for their national exam fees.


Despite daily stories about the poor state of our health and education systems, our MPs and leaders still get irked when they visit Mulago hospital mortuary and find the place stinking with untreated corpses, or when they visit a village health center and find no drugs and medical personnel. They get irked/shocked and you wonder what the reaction for the ordinary person should be. But, the headlines and stories support their shock…

  • Poor state of Mulago mortuary irk MPs
  • District leaders shocked at poor state of health centers
  • High school drop outs irk minister


MPs expressed shock at the dilapidated state of Kiryandongo hospital, calling on government to act before the facility collapses on patients.

Then there is this:

Ministers assessing the standard of education in the country were at the weekend irked when they found school children studying under trees in Kaberamaido District.

…a man for all seasons

When Robert Bolt wrote A Man for all Seasons, he had no clue how important the play would be in spicing up headlines and stories that describe different personalities. You can’t just miss it, probably because it’s a phrase for all seasons. Politicians, artists and activists have been handed the title man for all seasons. Sometimes rightly so, sometimes out of context – still, Bolt takes the day for the lovable title.

…a tale of

Yeah, this is a tale of another overused phrase, common in feature stories or special report headlines. So don’t be surprised when you, once, twice and many times land on articles with a tale of in the headline or story. E,g.

  • A tale of Uganda’s shy leaders and a general’s orders (Africa review)
  • Ebinyebwa; a tale of the Ugandan groundnut stew (Daily Monitor)
  • A tale of the size fitting condoms and endowed communities (NTV Point Blank)
  • Teenage mums: a tale of dreams shattered (The Observer)
  • Kenya’s presidential race: a tale of two families (New Vision)
  • Uganda-South Africa rugby: A tale of two “unequal” women teams

And as you can see, the headlines above read perfect (the conflicting punctuations notwithstanding). The question then is how many times we shall read the tale of this phrase.

…on the spot

It’s impossible to recall how many people, districts, hospitals, etc, have been on the spot for this or the other. But I’m sure you can recall the headline which read:

  • KCCA on the spot over open manholes (The Observer)
  • MP on the spot over Museveni Sacco cash (Daily Monitor)
  • MOH on the spot over nodding disease money (Red Pepper)
  • Onek on (the) spot over ERA appointment (New Vision)


This word too has been used, so much so that it must be silently decrying its over use.


Cries foul

Another phrase that is loved so much that one can’t help but get a foul feeling about its usage. Teachers cry foul over poor salaries; Local leaders cry foul over State House wasteful spending; Opposition cries foul over election rigging, etc and me and you cry foul over the over use of cries foul.

…MPs led by

I don’t recall when these found their way into our articles but they exist and seem here to stay. When MPs back the law against tobacco, it won’t be MPs. No, they have to be led by someone. MPs have backed the proposed legislation against tobacco use in the country. MPs led by XYZ of constituency A, made a bi-partisan resolution to…So does an MP decide that he/she will lead the rest on issue A and another does so for concern B,  or does it mean the first MP to comment about the tobacco legislation gets the ‘lead’ slot?

…just like any other

Then there are these four words whose usage I sometimes find difficult to comprehend. Here:

Just like any other pupil in the country, John embarked on a journey to school on Monday morning, only to end up in the hands of child traffickers

Just like any other mother, Jane had looked forward to having a normal delivery only for her to get a still birth due to negligence.

The list goes on and on.

Sometimes these words and phrases are used because they communicate, but sometimes and most likely, often times, we just go with them because they are the easy option, they are on our finger tips and well, deadlines are deadlines. Still, a little thinking and creativity can help kick out these clichés.

Harriet Anena

Harriet Anena is ACME’s Special Projects Officer


  1. Spot on.

  2. Insightful! However, I would request next time you give an alternative other than repeat what has already been published only. In this way, it would have expanded our understanding.
    But also if I may quote you: “But before we go into the why, let’s look…” your article doesn’t tell us the ‘why’ and hopefully, this will be coming soon.

    1. Hi Pesh, thank you for reading. The ‘Why’ is actually explained in the last paragraph. These words and phrases are at our fingertips (because we use them all the time, they become easy options), that is why I suggested creativity, a thinking outside the box but keeping it simple.

      Secondly, giving alternatives would mean looking at each story as it comes, but once you are aware of these cliches, you can then try to avoid them, look for fresher alternatives that can still communicate the same message. For instance, instead of saying ‘dragged to court’, the word ‘sued’ would suffice. The rest is really upon each writer to do some personal audit of their stories and see if there is an improvement in terms of grammar, diction, etc.

  3. Great piece Anena. You forgot one over used phrase, “it has emerged” or “it emerged” yesterday/last week/last month.

  4. This is a wonderful observation ,Anena though i would suggest we get a refresher kind of course or workshop for all writers to draw the attention to this so that we continue to make our journalist work more compelling to the consumers.

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