Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 15: Painting a Picture

There'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:

"Two more city aldermen were indicted today on charges of racketeering."

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 crime-and even though it'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 sketchy—from reports such as:

"As to the cause of the fire, details at this time are sketchy."

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.

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.

Specifically, people will use sketchy incorrectly to mean "untrustworthy" or "dangerous" or "questionable," as in,
That guy standing at the door looks like a sketchy character.

It's a great restaurant, but it's in a sketchy part of town.
We at Grammar Grater are not advocates of correcting people's spoken words—it's enormously rude. But here in the safety and objectivity of this podcast, we can examine usage more closely and without hurting anyone's feelings.

The word sketchy actually means "not thorough or detailed"—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.

If a person seems untrustworthy or suspect, better words abound to use in place of sketchy.

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.

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: It's a great restaurant, but it's in a dicey part of town.

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 shady... but that's a pretty specific instance.

Source: The Oxford Dictionary of Current English.

Songs from this Episode: "Must I Paint You a Picture" by Billy Bragg; "Pink Panther Theme" by Henry Mancini; "Cachita" by Esquivel.

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