Category Archives: Words
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.”
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
The main bulletin is over. Hugh or Emily or Peter or whoever’s go it is, smiles, shuffles papers a bit and announces brightly, ‘And now for the news where you are.’ Of course, the news in Birmingham won’t be the same as the news in London, which will be different from the day’s events in Swalesdale, which won’t be the same as those in St Ives. Why not? Because it’s local news. There you see – there’s already a perfectly good, serviceable word, which describes the situation perfectly. So come on guys – how about using it.
The habit of personalising everything is not restricted to newsreaders. The weather boys and girls, bless their spits and spots, have got into the same annoying habit of telling us about the weather ‘where you are.’ Oh really! It’s raining in my sitting room is it? And is that a patch of low cloud shrouding the lower deck of the bus? And yes, I did notice a distinct drop in temperature in Tesco. Though of course that could have been because I was standing right next to the freezers.
The prime example of this obsession with the possessive pronoun is M & S. Am I the only person who finds the expression ‘Your M&S’ not only irritating but more than a little smug. They are a bit holier than thou, with all this sustainable this and additive free that. I might have had more respect for them if they had a sense of humour. Alas, that was sadly lacking back in April when Ann Summers, the equally iconic sex shop parodied the Meal Deal offer and just about everything else. And cheekily transformed the famous slogan into ‘Your S & M’ with the strapline – ‘It’s not just sex, it’s Ann Summers sex.’ But instead of seeing the funny side, poor old Marks and Sparks got its knickers in a twist. Ann Summers got a right old slap on the wrist. Though a slap on the bottom might have been more appropriate. The ads never ran.
I blame the Beeb. And yes, there are worse offenders – Sky News, ITV, Four, Five, politicians, bureaucrats, executives, business schools, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. But, Oh Auntie! It really is up to you to set an example. No one expects you to keep wearing the twinset, pearls and horsey headscarf. Something classic and tasteful from M&S or John Lewis would be perfectly acceptable, linguistically speaking. Or even a mini skirt or skinny jeans from Top Shop for Radio 1 listeners – but a shell suit and faux Burberry and all that bling! It’s just not on.
New expressions and new influences keep the language alive. Shakespeare misused grammar to great effect and some current expressions add wonderfully to its richness. But that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is laziness, sloppiness and the need to rush through everything at the behest of the programme schedulers – the modern equivalent of the hounds of hell. The broadcast media is always in such a hurry, trying to fit too much into too short a time. You only need to listen to the poor breathless weather people – trying to cram their spits and spots into the 15 seconds allotted to them. Hence the fashion for turning verbs and adjectives into nouns and vice versa. You do not ‘task’ someone to do something. ‘Task’ is noun, not a verb. And ‘conference’ is a noun, not please, oh please not a verb as in ‘lets conference.’ Add all this to the herd mentality and you end up with the sort of language that has me thinking fondly of the National Rifle Association.
Misuse of language is like a rash – it spreads. It only takes one politician to say ‘going forward’ and next thing you have is an epidemic. Before you know it expressions such as ‘in the future’, ‘looking ahead’ and even ‘from now on’ have become like Monty Python’s parrot – deceased, they are no more. ‘Going forward’ isn’t the only example, indeed there are so many that I could fill in a thousand posts, and given time, I probably will.
When did you last hear a newsreader, politician or businessman say that something was going to happen ‘before’ the meeting, the summit, the statement? Bet you can’t remember. ‘Before’ has vanished into outer darkness. Nowadays it’s all ‘ahead of this’ and ‘ahead of that’. Happily, I’m not alone. Lucy Kellaway has written a great article on the subject And there’s a bunch of people so annoyed at the way the expression has crept into business in general and their organisation in particular that they tracked its use in their meetings.
Not everyone cares about the way language is used. And of course, expressions that drive me nuts don’t bother others and vice versa. Nor am I suggesting that we follow rules blindly. I’m all for embracing new words, new forms and new uses. Provided they make sense. Provided you know what you’re doing. As long as there’s a positive result – more clarity, more nuances, more invention. What I can’t stand is sloppiness and the herd mentality. We are not sheep though I’m of the opinion that some among us are not as intelligent. Sloppy language leads to sloppy thought. And sloppy thought leads to all sorts of bad things. So if we can’t look to Auntie Beeb to set an example, then we might as well pack up our bags, put out the lights and learn to speak Esperanto.
Last time I heard some interviewee say ‘different than’ I threw the radio across the room,narrowly missing the cat. So for the sake of the cat’s physical health, not to say her sanity, I am reduced to screeching ‘different from’ at the top of my voice. Which does nothing for my throat. This is England for goodness sake. ‘Different than’ is an Americanism. It has no place here.
I’m happy to see that that excellent blogger ‘Pain in the English’ has posted on the subject. Of course, as he says, there are grey areas and differences of opinion. But, when used as a comparison, the expression is ‘different from’ or even on occasion ‘different to’ but not ‘different than.’ It’s just not right.
I know there are a few, very rare and vey specialised, instances where the ‘from’ might just be permissible, but what irritates me is that 99.9% if the people using the expression have absolutely no knowledge of the rules that might allow this. They are just following the herd – or even the ‘heard’ for it’s more than likely they have picked up the expression on the radio or TV. For more fascinating discussions on this and other facets of the English language, have a look at Pain in the English.
The material in this post comes from my old website. I had always meant to update it but never got round to it. Now that the new website is up and running and the blog is too, I think this stuff is better on the blog. It’s a totally random selection of some of the books I have enjoyed.
Ridley Walker – Russell Hoban. A must-read for anyone intrigued by language.
Beloved -Toni Morrison. Among the most exquisite writing you’ll find anywhere. An emotionally searing book.
His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman. A brilliant, un-put-downable trilogy. The very best storytelling, tangled up with metaphysics.
Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak. A children’s story, also much loved by adults and artists. Extraordinary imagination and amazing illustrations recently made into a film that, for once, is more or less faithful to the brilliant original.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – John Berendt. Fantastic, dark, intriguing, factual. A cross between a travelogue and a crime mystery. Makes you long to visit Savannah.
Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. An astonishing debut novel for children, but a great read for grown ups too. London on wheels. Yes, you did read that correctly. Read the book.
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things – Jon McGregor. Another wonderful debut novel. Beautifully written, spare and compelling. The tension is almost unbearable. And he’s written two more since then – both different, both amazing!
The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx. One of my bibles. A book I return to again and again for its power and its poetry, its characters and its quirkiness.
Amusing Ourselves to Death – Neil Postman. The effect of mass media on society. An instructive, if chilling, book.
A Dictionary of Angels – Gustav Davidson. Perfect dipping in material. Did you know there is an angel over vegetables? And an angel who returns small birds to their owners?
More to come. Watch this space.