I spend a lot of my free time reading, one result of which is a long list of rhetorical pet peeves. Little phrases and expressions that, for me at least, immediately make the writer look like an amateur.
Starting a sentence with “Uhm” or “Hmmmm,” for example. This is an especially common one among blog writers. It’s a silly and cliched way of suggesting that your opponent has not merely made a weak argument, but has actually said something unhinged and foolish. In the early days of blogs this might have been a clever way of achieving a conversational tone, but now it’s so overused it just makes the writer look ridiculous.
Closely related is, “Wow. Just, wow.” It’s another feeble and uninspired attempt to suggest that your opponent is beyond wrong and resides instead in Crazytown. Of course, your opponent might very well so reside, but in that case the force of your prose and the strength of your arguments should be adequate for making that clear. There’s no need to invoke asinine, overused cliches. There’s a long-standing rule of internet combat that the first person to make a Hitler comparison automatically loses the argument. I think we need a similar rule for people who say, “Wow. Just, wow.”
Ending a sentence with “no,” (or, more rarely, ”yes.”) It’s a miserable excrescence the rhetorical world would be better off without. This is obvious, no? Here the intended effect is to say, “Surely was can all agree on this basic point that refutes what my opponent is saying.” The actual effect is to say, “This post comes straight from amateur hour.” Placing “no” at the end of your sentence is just an annoying little chirp that serves no purpose, unless you specifically want to tell the world that you’re a lousy, uninspired writer.
“To be sure” is another one I can live without. As in, “To be sure, everything I have said to this point is a ridiculous oversimplification with little basis in facts, logic or evidence.” It makes you look pompous and full of yourself, since considerable education is required before it feels natural to use such a vapid nonsense phrase.
You know what else I don’t like? When things that aren’t people are said to be in “conversation” or are said to be engaging in “dialogue.” This is especially common in science/religion disputes, usually coming from religious folks desperate for science to take them seriously. So we’ll hear about Genesis and evolution being in conversation, or we’ll hear calls for dialogue between science and religion. Of course, in this context it is especially obnoxious, since the implication of engaging in conversation or dialogue is that each party has something to say to the other.
A related, though less common, stylistic infelicity is when something that isn’t a person is said to be “interrogated.” This one comes up often in academic writing, especially when it emanates from the social sciences. You might read something like, “Sociologists have long interrogated the presumption that higher-levels of education lead inevitably to decreased religiosity…” No you haven’t! People can be interrogated. Presumptions can be challenged. Then again, academic writing provides an endless supply of annoying rhetorical self-puffery, so perhaps we shouldn’t go further down this road.
Here’s a word I don’t like: “Autodidact.” Granted, it doesn’t come up very often, but it’s still an ugly, clumsy word for something that is actually very positive. And while we’re at it, there is no such thing as a “Neanderthal” The correct pronunciation is “Neandertal” That last syllable should sound like the fellow who won the World Chess Championship in 1960. Shame on you if you don’t know the reference.
You know what else should get you sent to the rhetorical wood shed? Referring to an honored and famous personage as “our old friend.” Creationists are especially fond of this one, saying things like, “It was none other than our old friend Charles Darwin who made possible a scientific defense of racism…” In addition to making you look like an amateur and a bad writer and an all around silly person, this one usually makes you look like a jerk as well. It’s basically a hamhanded device for burnishing your credentials and behaving with condescension towards those who are, by orders of magnitude, your superiors. You’re essentially saying, “I have such expertise in this area, and such a panoramic view of history, that I can speak very casually about great figures of the past, understanding that, while they were certainly great for their time, we can now see how foolish they look by modern standards.”
And stop describing banalities with words like “deeply” and ”profoundly.” It doesn’t convey seriousness or depth. It just makes you look ridiculous. You know what I’m talking about, right? Someone will say, “My opponent’s main argument is deeply untrue and profoundly troubling.” Sorry, but the words “deeply” and “profoundly” contribute nothing to that sentence. Unless your intent was to come off as a poseur.
If you’re really keen on looking like an idiot, say that thus and so “begs the question” of this or that, when what you really mean is, “Thus and so prompts us to ask about this or that.” Begging the question is what you’re doing when you subtly assume what you’re trying to prove. If instead you are simply making a certain query seem natural, then you are not begging the question.
“On its face.” Don’t use it. It’s bad, bad, bad. It’s what you say when you feel intuitively that something is wrong but don’t have a really good argument to make against it. Typical usage, “Darwin’s idea of humanity’s gradual evolution from lower orders of animals is absurd on its face.” A closely-related rhetorical nightmare is, “It doesn’t pass the laugh test.” Upon encountering such a phrase, stop. The op-ed you’re reading is unlikely to be at all edifying.
No doubt you have encountered the following situation. Someone takes a few hours composing an essay that he posts somewhere on the internet. A commenter shows up and spends thirty seconds to a minute pointing out precisely how full of it the author is. The author then ignores the substance of the criticism, preferring instead to throw up his hands and say, “Whoa! Looks like someone has too much time on his hands.” Once again, you automatically lose the argument by going there.
And can we please get clear on the proper use of the word “blog”? A blog is the sum total of all the pieces of writing that appear beneath the banner at the top of the page. The individual pieces of writing, the things that get a title and a time stamp and which people comment on, are blog posts or blog entries. They are not themselves blogs. Someone who says, “Last week I wrote a blog about how to prepare the perfect matzoh ball…” has thereby announced to the world that he needs lessons in proper usage.
When you’re describing something, please do not tell me what it is “almost” like. Don’t say things like, “Joe was socially awkward, and watching him talk to girls was an almost painful experience.” Don’t tell me what things are almost like and tell me instead what they are actually like. Okay? Is that asking too much? A related instance of mere words creating the fingernails on the chalkboard effect is a sentence like, “The phrase “lying sack of pus” cannot even begin to capture my contempt for that man.” Really? You have not even begun to express your contempt? It’s a bit of a slap in the face. Makes it sound like I completely wasted my time reading your sentence at all.
Looking for one more rhetorical kick in the crotch? Try describing something as “a big damn deal.” That’ll fix you up real fast.
Anyway, those are a few items off the top off my head. No doubt I will think of a dozen more as soon as I post this, but for now I feel better.