Thereâ€™s a lot of great vocabulary we can pick up just by listening to the news. When I was a kid, I remember hearing news stories that contained lines like this:
â€œTwo more city aldermen were indicted today on charges of racketeering.â€
From news like that, I learned that an alderman (or alderwoman) is a member of a city, county or borough council. The word indict means to charge someone with a crimeâ€”and even though itâ€™s spelled with a c, the c is not pronounced. And I learned that racketeering has absolutely nothing to do with tennis.
Yet another great word I learned from the news is sketchyâ€”from reports such as:
â€œAs to the cause of the fire, details at this time are sketchy.â€
Sketchy is a highly useful word, and it is often employed in news reporting when facts of a story are incomplete. Outside of news reporting, it can be used when describing a project, concept or idea that is in its early phases of development.Â
But entirely removed from news reporting and creative thinking, it seems that in everyday conversations, in blogs or in other electronic communications, sketchy gets inappropriately used in place of other, better words. Â Specifically, people will use sketchy incorrectly to mean "untrustworthy" or "dangerous" or "questionable," as in,Â Â
That guy standing at the door looks like a sketchy character.
Itâ€™s a great restaurant, but itâ€™s in a sketchy part of town.
We at Grammar Grater are not advocates of correcting peopleâ€™s spoken wordsâ€”itâ€™s enormously rude. But here in the safety and objectivity of this podcast, we can examine usage more closely and without hurting anyoneâ€™s feelings.Â
The word sketchy actually means "not thorough or detailed"â€”that is, just like a pencil-and-paper sketch. Therefore, a person or a place cannot really be sketchy unless they're semi-opaque or something.Â Â
If a person seems untrustworthy or suspect, better words abound to use in place of sketchy. Â Examples of words one can use instead of sketchy include
Shady: That guy paying with small, unmarked bills seems a shady character.
Dodgy: I live in a dodgy neighborhood.
Shifty: That guy who sold me the car is a shifty character.
Dangerous: That man lurking in the alley seems dangerous.Â
The same goes for locales or situations that seem unsafe or uncertain. Rather than sketchy, we can use some of the aforementioned words, plus others like
Risky: Driving that old car through the mountains is a risky prospect.
Shaky: We got off to a shaky start.
Unstable: The political situation in the region is unstable.
Dicey: Itâ€™s a great restaurant, but itâ€™s in a dicey part of town.Â
There may be one exception to all this, however. In March of 2007, Minnesota Public Radio's Nikki Tundel did a feature story on Marcia Cummings, a forensic artist who creates the police sketches of criminal suspects. So it could probably be said that the people in Marcia's drawings are indeed both sketchy and shadyâ€¦ but thatâ€™s a pretty specific instance.Â
About Grammar Grater
Grammar Grater is a weekly podcast from Minnesota Public Radio that looks at English words, grammar and usage in a time when everybodyâ€™s a writer. And with the global nature of communication, there's not a single style guide everyone uses. Each week, host Luke Taylor and the Grammatis Personae Players (Cory Busse, Amy Ault and John Ryan) take a lighthearted approach to language by putting common linguistic bugbears through the Grammar Grater.You can learn more about the podcast here and you can subscribe to the podcast by clicking this link: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/tools/podcasts/grammar_grater.xmlÂ