Category Archives: English
Some words and phrases have become so embedded in speech that we no longer notice their absurdity and simply accept them. This is dangerous. Dangerous for clarity of thought. Dangerous for the language.
Of these expressions, the one I’m singling out today, among a myriad of candidates, is the use, or more accurately the misuse, of the word “absolutely”. Like the phrase “going forward” it’s redundant. It’s about as much use in a sentence as a snowman is in an avalanche. And you’ll hear it, in the main, on the lips of politicians and, to a slightly lesser extent, used by spokespersons of fat, self- important organisations. Our own prime minister uses it like a comfort blanket.
“We have absolutely no intention …”
“I absolutely agree …”
“Let me make myself absolutely clear …”
“I absolutely take that on board … “
“It’s absolute nonsense … “
At least I can agree with that last one. It is nonsense. Just listen next time you turn on the radio or TV, especially if the interviewee is a politician. Count how many times he or she uses the word. On the other hand don’t, as getting worked up does nasty things to the blood pressure.
Not only is sloppy language indicative of sloppy though – yes, I know, this is one of my frequently ridden hobby horses – it is also somewhat sinister. When a politician or a bureaucrat or a spokesman for some public or private monolith uses the ‘A’ word it’s like a signal. It means the opposite to what is being conveyed. “Absolutely” meaning “yes” is at best hypocritical, often a downright lie. Having “absolutely no intention” of doing something usually means the contrary. Making oneself “absolutely clear” means “I’m the one in charge, mate, so what I say goes.”
Yuck. Yuck. And thrice yuck!
Business speak, sometimes called management speak. It’s got so ridiculous now that it doesn’t just obscure, it’s incomprehensible. Even to those who use it. But in true ‘Emperors New Clothes’ style, they can hardly open their mouths to say so can they? Poor lambs.
There are loads of great websites on the subject. I’ll give the links at the end. For now I’ll just expose some that drive me up the wall (only a few or I’d be writing for the rest of the year). And mention others that are new to me and that take my breath away. The only possible advantage to these expressions is that they give me, and people like me, plenty of material for our posts and rants.
Let’s start with the headline above ….
Bring to the party – so it’s a party now is it?
Open the kimono – a new one to me. Absolutely creepy, not to say pornographic. I think it ‘s supposed to mean show or reveal. So why not say so.
Low hanging fruit – quick win. Easy pickings?
Going forward – I absolutely hate this. I shout at the radio every single time I hear it. Of course you are going forward, unless you’ll admit to going sideways or backwards and no one in business will ever admit to that.
Drill down – You’re planting seeds are you? Or maybe you are doing some DIY. In any case you’re hardly going to be drilling up! What’s wrong with ‘explore’ or ‘analyse’.
Deliver – please not, unless you are the Royal Mail or UPS. Complete, fulfill, do? As to deliverables – don’t get me started.
Wrongside the demographic – yet another one I haven’t come across before. I know what ‘demographic’ means. I know what ‘wrong’ means and ‘side’. Put them all together and I may as well be talking to a Martian.
In this space – well, speaking of Martians, where did you think we were? Mars, Jupiter – most likely up Uranus.
Stakeholders – I can’t help but visualise vampires whenever I hear this expression.
Sunset – a new one on me. It means to cancel or kill a project. Apparently. Oh my sainted aunt. To make it even worse, it’s turned yet another innocent noun into a verb. Top marks for euphemism though!
Forward planning – er, planning? You don’t plan backwards. Well I don’t, anyway.
Best of Breed Cloud Burst – I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about and I doubt you do either.
There are many others who, like me, are driven nuts by management and business speak. I am indebted to them for discovering some of the expressions above, others are my own pet hates. Here are some links:-
I love the English language, but some words really irritate me. One in particular has been prominent lately; it’s been on every newsreader’s lips, constantly, driving me nuts. It’s not a word that bothers most people, judging by the amount of times you hear it. However, having written that sentence I suddenly realised that I never hear ordinary people use it. By that I mean that you don’t hear it when real people are talking to each other.
A little reflection and I realised why. It’s because it’s ‘official speak’. And that’s the clue. That’s why I hate it so much. (When I used the word ‘irritate’ I was lying. It doesn’t irritate me; it infuriates me.) I have to confess that I haven’t noticed it used in print, but it probably is. Newspapers are as guilty of ‘official speak’ as the rest of the media, but probably not so much.
So what is this word that drives me so crazy? It’s the word – or in my vocabulary the non-word – ‘wrongdoing’. Where did it come from? Who first started using it? What in the name of all that’s holy is wrong with saying ‘crime’ or ‘doing wrong’? I think I know. In order not to say ‘wrongdoing’ you have to use a few more words, which might throw out the carefully controlled TV and radio schedules by a few nano seconds and get the newsreaders colliding with the continuity announcers and bumping uncomfortably against the poor weather people, who, goodness knows, are squeezed enough.
What would I say instead of ‘wrongdoing’ – always assuming I was a newsreader? What I would say is ‘he claimed he was not guilty of any crime.’ ‘She says she has done nothing wrong.’ ‘He denies he has done anything wrong’. In fact, these phrases don’t actually use up any more words than saying ‘He says he was not guilty of any wrongdoing.’ In fact, in some instances, fewer words are used, so there’s no excuse. It’s simply lazy. One journalist says ‘wrongdoing’ and everyone else says ‘wrongdoing’. It’s all part of the parrot syndrome. Maybe I’m being be unfair to single out newsreaders and journalists since it’s the politicians who are the worst offenders. All the same, I don’t expect much of politicians but I do think we should be able to look to journalists to respect this great language of ours and stop behaving like sheep.
Some thoughts on the lack of clarity and logic in manufacturers instructions. Or, to put it another way, a great big fat rant!
A couple of weeks ago my printer got sick. It developed a strange disease that caused it to believe it was a rainbow. Of course a colour printer should make rainbows, but only when asked. My poor machine had what appeared to be a severe identity crisis. What should have been mono print came out green or green and yellow. And then it would change its mind and print exclusively in pink. Attempts to rectify it sent it into further vibrant hysterics. Although there were diagnostic thingies to help, in most cases I find them virtually useless. The reason? Language. And logic.
Way back, when I was training to be a social worker, I signed on for an optional course called ‘The Use of English’. Some of my friends thought it irrelevant – what had use of English to do with being a social worker? The answer is ‘everything’. It’s all to do with clarity. It’s not only writers who need to make their meaning clear. For them it’s a matter of reputation and personal pride. But in other professions it can be a matter of life or death – literally. Think doctor. Think air traffic controller. Think engineer.
While computer and printer technology may not be a matter of life and death, lack of clear instructions can lead to hours of wasted time, great frustration and dent any good will felt towards the manufacturer of the equipment. While perhaps unquantifiable, this is nevertheless undeniable. Just take a look at some of the reviews next time you are buying a piece of technology.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learnt from that ‘Use of English’ class was this. If a piece of writing doesn’t make sense, don’t immediately assume it’s because you are not clever enough to understand it. Think instead – is it me, or is it badly written? You will find that in many cases it’s the latter. The meaning hasn’t been made clear in the writing. Punctuation plays a large part here. The placing of a comma, for instance, can alter the entire meaning of a sentence.
To get back to the matter of technical instructions. Language is critical, but so is logic. In my experience, people who know a subject really well make an entirely unconscious assumption that everyone else does too. When I started to read ‘A Brief History of Time’ I was delighted that I appeared to understand it. At first. I can’t remember where I got lost but it was quite early on. Later I worked out the reason. It began well enough. A to B, B to C, C to D. Then suddenly we had jumped to J, K, L and another leap to Q and so on. The bits just didn’t link up; I couldn’t follow. As I result I gave up on a book that I had really wanted to read.
I gave up on my poor printer too. My attempts to recalibrate it were frustrated by the incomprehensible instructions. The words bore no relation to the images in front of me. The instructions for my new printer were not bad, but still left a great deal to be desired. If there is a choice between using the printer to set up or using the computer, why not say so? If you want me to return to a section later – and presumably it’s important as you are asking me to do it – why don’t you tell me how to get back to that page?
Since beginning this post I have spent a frustrating half hour trying to set up the ePrint function on the new printer. (Why I’m not sure because I doubt that I will ever need it.) It asked for my password. I entered it. It told me the password is wrong – or at least up popped a little cross, in red in case I am too dim to know what a cross means. After several futile attempts I wondered if perhaps I didn’t have an account after all (although in fact I do). So I tried to create a new account. Only to be told that my email address is already registered. So I attempted to change the password. Simple, you’d think. Not. I was directed to a completely different site, a commercial site that prints photographs. I do not want to use a commercial site that prints photographs. I have just bought a printer that does just that. Doh!
I’ve given up for now. Maybe for good. There’s no phone number so I can ask a helpful person for the information that should have been there from the start. Which account are you talking about? Do you mean the same one I always use for Hewlett Packard’s products? (There! I’ve said it.) If not that account, why don’t you tell me which one you are talking about? Why am I obliged to sign in to a totally random account that I don’t want in order to get a password for an account that I do want? Or might conceivably want in the future? Can you please direct me to your communications department? I would willingly accept the task of writing logical, fool proof instructions in clear English for you. Please ask them to get in touch. You can contact me via the contact page on my website. You won’t need a password.
I sometimes think we must be turning into a nation of parrots. No sooner does someone use a new piece of jargon than everyone else starts to use it too. We’ve become lazy, blindly following others like a load of fuzzy-brains trailing after a not-very-literate pied piper. Or maybe we think that if a politician or a ‘celeb’ uses an expression it makes us look good if we use it to.
In earlier posts I have berated the BBC in particular for perpetrating this laziness. And there’s no doubt that their continuity announcers, presenters and newsreaders are among the worst offenders. However, it’s hard to see which came first, the politician who says ‘going forward’, the journalist who persists in repeating it or the public who parrot it. I guess everyone’s to blame. It’s as if once someone has used a particular phrase everyone else gets collective amnesia and seems incapable of remembering that there are other ways of saying the same thing.
Below I’ve listed a few of my pet hates. Just a few, I’m sparing you. They won’t be everyone’s pet hates, but they have me screaming at the radio and, on occasion, throwing things. I no longer have a cat to frighten in this way, which is a good thing, but even so I often wonder if my neighbour can hear me through the wall.
At a young age. Why? What in the name of all that’s holy is wrong with ‘when I was young?’ Or ‘We should learn that when young’, not ‘at a young age’. I don’t know when this one crept in but it’s driving me insane.
Wrong doing. This so unnecessary. Why can’t they say ‘accused of a crime’ or ‘not guilty of any crime’ or ‘not guilty of doing anything wrong’ or simply ‘not guilty’? It doesn’t take much longer to say.
Loved ones. Here’s another one that sets my teeth on edge. Like the others it’s a sort of unthinking shorthand. What’s wrong with ‘family’ or if it’s a wider group ‘family and friends’, ‘friend’s and colleagues’ and other such permutations? I mean ‘loved ones’ isn’t necessarily accurate, if that is what you were aiming for, which I doubt. After all you don’t necessarily love your family.
Going forward. Oh spare us! What does it mean? What’s wrong with ‘in future’, or ‘next time’ or some other precise expression? Listen carefully next time you hear someone say it (you won’t have long to wait). You’ll discover that, in most instances, it means absolutely nothing. It’s like a verbal twitch.
Ahead of. There is some excuse for this one. Sometimes. But it’s not to be used in parrot fashion. For instance, if the future event is to take place very soon after the event that it is ‘ahead of’, then it makes sense. If the event is some way in the future, then why not use the good old word ‘before’?
Hard working families. Another weaselly bit of political speak. How do they know these families are hard working? Is this an aspiration or a fact? Are they implying that only hard working families deserve whatever hollow carrot is being dangled before them? What about those of us who aren’t in families? The single people? The divorced? The widowed? For my part I find this expression insulting in the extreme. And lazy. And unthinking. And well, just what I’d expect from a politician.
A couple of weeks ago, during a pleasant weekend in the country, my friends took me to one of those garden-centre-come-overpriced gift-shop-come-expensive-interior-design–come-a-bit-of-everything sort of places – I believe the correct name is shopping village. (Who thought that one up?) In this shopping so-called village there were two restaurants, both heaving. When we finally got to sit down in one we ordered a perfectly adequate meal of the baked-potato-with-toppings and soup-and-a-roll variety. Not a Michelin star in sight; that was fine. We weren’t expecting gourmet.
What wasn’t fine was the sheer effrontery of the place. When it was time to choose a pudding (I will not call it a dessert in this context) each of the three items on the menu stated - and I quote – ‘comes with custard, cream or ice cream’. I’m not sure what prompted me to check, apart from my suspicious nature or perhaps my passion for words and the English language. For whatever reason, I asked the waiter to confirm that these items came as part of the pudding.
‘Oh no,’ I was told. ‘They are extras.’
‘But it says ‘comes with,’ I protested. ‘That means they are part of the dish.’
‘Oh no,’ he repeated, ‘you have to pay extra.’
‘It says,’ I insisted ‘comes with custard, cream or ice cream.’
‘It does come with them, ‘ he answered, ‘but you have to pay for them.’
Arguing was pointless since he didn’t get the point. I gave up. I did, however, draw the offending text to the attention of the owner, assuming it was some sort of typo. He didn’t exactly apologise just acknowledged my comment and thanked me in a lukewarm sort of way. Which was somewhat cancelled out when he sauntered up to our table and said that I was the first person who had remarked on the wording in eight years. Any hopes of a goodwill gesture – ‘so sorry, have the custard/cream/ice cream on us’ was obviously out of the question.
Eight years! Jeez! He’d been getting away with that for eight years. At least. If this sounds a bit of an extreme reaction on my part, let me tell you there was more. The pudding selection consisted of three items on the menu. With prices. Plus a selection of cakes not on the menu but displayed in a case. With no prices. The bill wasn’t itemised. How did you know that your bill was accurate? You didn’t. Bad as that is from a trading standards perspective, the thing that bothers me just as much is the general ignorance about the use of English.
These days, while there are still many people who care passionately about the use of language, there are far more who don’t. Some from indifference. Even more through no fault of their own but rather as a result of failures in our system of education. So, why should any of them care anyway? What does it matter after all? It matters. Language is constantly evolving, which is a good thing. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about here is clear communication. That’s what grammar is all about. Clarity. The placement of a comma affects the entire meaning of a sentence. Sloppy language can signal sloppy thinking. It could lose you a job or, in the case of my grammatically challenged restaurant owner, a visit from the trading standards officer.There are many great books on the subject. Just to cite a few examples there is the splendid Eats, Shoots and Leaves as well as Troublesome Words and my bible, English Today, by the redoubtable Ronald Ridout.
As if the government weren’t making a sufficient hames of everything it touches, the BBC, NHS and various regulatory bodies have all got in on the act in recent weeks. As I explained in a post some time last year, to make a hames of something means to make a mess of it. The expression is derived from a particularly complicated harness used for plough horses. Everyone screws it up.
A cute hoor is another creative Irish expression. Cute means clever, and hoor means exactly what it says on the tin. A cute hoor is a rogue or a charlatan, someone who seems respectable and upright but who never misses a chance to rip you off. In Ireland it’s applied to everyone from cowboy builders, to bankers, politicians, tax evaders – the whole sorry bunch of them. Sound familiar? Stand up and take a bow Dennis McShane, Starbucks and many more too numerous, and possibly libellous, to name. In the Emerald Isle they tend to be lumped together as ‘the Cute Hoor Party.’
Somewhat to my consternation I can’t find a specific slang term for bank or bankers. The Irish seem content with the British rhyming slang, which I have to admit, works. So why change it? Though they have in a sense; at least there’s a derivative. In Ireland they call it an Allied Irish, after the well-known bank of that name.
I’m always surprised to find myself surprised at the goings on, not simply in parliament but in local government, corporations and governing bodies. Just when you think no one could make a bigger mess of things, they make a bigger mess of things. As far as I’m concerned they’re a bunch of amadáns, utter eejits. To use an expression that comes from Waterford, my own neck of the woods, I’ve seen better heads in a field of grass. I mean what are they up to? They don’t seem to have the sense they were born with. As much use as lighthouse on a bog, or a chocolate teapot. They won’t stop till the whole economy is banjaxed, even more than it is already. It’s enough to have you reach for the black stuff and drink yourself stocious.
* Image: www.notthesamestream.blogspot.com
… but the legacy lingers on. Such good sports in very sense of the word!
…. but you can try
If there’s one word guaranteed to get me shouting at the radio, the TV and even, on occasion, at the computer screen it’s the word impact. Affect I scream. The economy has been affected by the banking crisis. Or, if you must, the banking crisis has had an impact on the current economic downturn. Not, please not, the economy has been impacted by the banking crisis. Of course it would be true to say that our economy is one whopping great car crash, but that’s by the bye.
I think it’s the use of the noun impact as a verb that so annoys me. (Before you start screaming, at me, hold on and all will be revealed.) I’m all for breaking the rules of grammar. I’m guilty of starting sentences with and or but and of splitting infinitives. But (there you see) I do know the rules to start with. However, I’m well aware that I don’t know everything and that I have my blind spots. I’m also a thorough person and conscious that, as a writer, I will be picked up on any inaccuracies. So I turned to the dictionary to check.
At first all was well. As I believed, the noun impact means the action of one object coming forcibly into contact with another as in there was the sound of a third impact. Yay. Just as I thought. Vindicated. I scrolled down. The word also means the effect or influence of one person, thing, or action, on another: our regional measures have had a significant impact on unemployment. So far so good.
I read on. Only to discover that impact can indeed be used both as a transitive and an intransitive verb. The very examples given in the dictionary are the ones that make me tear my hair out. An asteroid impacted the earth. High interest rates have impacted on retail spending. And worse the move is not expected to impact the company’s employees.
Bummer. It’s not nice to find that your favourite prejudices have no grammatical foundation. Bummer, bummer and thrice bummer. However, a chink of light appears. There’s ‘A Note’. This mentions that the phrasal verb impact on has been in the language since the 1960s but that many people disapprove of it despite its relative frequency. More to the point it continues by saying that, as a verb, impact rarely carries the noun’s original sense of forceful collision. Careful writers are advised to use more exact verbs that will leave their readers in no doubt about the intended meaning.
Oh dear! This post hasn’t quite turned out the way I meant it to. I set out to rant against the inaccurate use of impact as a verb, safe in the knowledge that I was right. And I’m not. Not strictly speaking. However, my visceral feelings tell me otherwise. No matter how correct it is, according to the letter of the law, I will always hate the word impact used as a verb. So whether I’m right or wrong, it’s my prejudice and I defend it to the death. As with many of the new shortcuts that have leaked into our language the root cause is both laziness and lack of imagination, coupled with the herd mentality. And just don’t start me off on going forward.
Picture source: creative commons-drweis gerber
James M. Cain tells a great story about his novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. A strange title, you might think, for a book about sex. It appears, though, that the manuscript was rejected so many times that when the rejection letters arrived, the postman rang twice. Now this does rather beg the question as to how the postman knew they were letters of rejection. It’s a great story and who am I to take issue with the likes of James M. Cain.
My information comes from Rotten Rejections, edited by André Bernard. It’s subtitled ‘The letters that publishers wish they’d never sent’ – and to give him his due, he does include rejections he sent out as well as some he received. Of course we all have the benefit of hindsight, even so the book is a great encouragement for those of us who’ve ever been rejected. I particularly dislike the cop-out – ‘it doesn’t fit our list’ but I’m in good company. The great Agatha Christie was subjected to that one for The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
There are so many gems in this book it’s hard to know what to include. So I’m leaving aside manuscripts that were rejected because they were, in their time, considered to be too racy or too sexy. Manuscripts submitted by DH Lawrence, Norman Mailer, W Somerset Maughan, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Hardy and Jacqueline Susann among others. Since I haven’t room for all of them I’m listing those that most appeal to me, on all sorts of levels. Some are well know, others less so. Here’s a selection.
Animal Farm, George Orwell. “ It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.”
Crash, J.G. Ballard. “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”
The Bridge over the River Quai, Pierre Boulle. “A very bad book.”
Untitled Manuscript, Emily Dickinson. “Queer … the rhymes were all wrong. They are … generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”
Northanger Abbey, 1818. Jane Austen. “We are willing to return the manuscript for the same advance we (paid) for it.”
The Lord of the Flies, William Golding. “It does not seem to us that you have been wholly successful in working out an admittedly promising idea.”
The White Goddess, Robert Graves. “I have to say that it was beyond me and failed to stir any spark of interest …”
Catch-22, Joseph Heller. “I haven’t really the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. It is about a group of American Army officers stationed in Italy, sleeping (but not interestingly) with each others’ wives and Italian prostitutes, and talking unintelligibly to one another … constitutes a continual and unmitigated bore.
The Spy who came in from the Cold, – John Le Carré “You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.”
A Dance to the Music of Time, Antony Powell. “… a 350,000 word monstrosity that may not be any more saleable than its parts have proved.”
Man and Superman – George Bernard Shaw. “ … he will never be popular in the usual sense of the word, and perhaps scarcely remunerative.”
The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells. “ An endless nightmare. I do not believe it would take … “
Look Homeward Angel, Thomas Wolfe. “Terrible.”
A River runs through it, Norman MacLean. “These stories have trees in them.”
That last one is my absolute favourite, it’s so weird – mad as cheese. Apart from the rejections themselves, the book is full of anecdotes by or about writers such as George Bernard Shaw, Steven King, Emily Dickenson, James Joyce and Beatrix Potter. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was self published in the first instance, though the publisher who’d rejected it later had a change of heart. And knew he was onto a sure thing! Not much change there then! But take heart. There’s no disgrace in being rejected, especially in such illustrious company.