Phrases I Hate

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.

Comments

  1. #1 perpetualstudent
    June 17, 2011

    Who made you the blog post Nazi? Oh Crap! I have already lost.

  2. #2 Deepak Shetty
    June 17, 2011

    I have to plead guilty of about 5 things you mention – though it is sorely tempting to repeat some offenses in this comment.

  3. #3 anon
    June 17, 2011

    The main problem with “My opponent’s main argument is deeply untrue and profoundly troubling” is neither “deeply” nor “profoundly,” but “troubling.”

    Nobody cares if you’re troubled. That’s a stupid bit of psychobabble used by low-end TV anchorpersons — you’ve seen it, “Next, troubling new information about DIHYDROGEN MONOXIDE!!!!” It’s the verbal equivalent of those all-caps and exclamations. It means you’re dealing primarily in feelings, not in facts. It means you can safely be ignored.

    “Disturbing,” ditto.

  4. #4 NewEnglandBob
    June 17, 2011

    What is with the affirming questions inside your post? Are those not as annoying as some of your complaints?

  5. #5 Kevin B. O'Reilly
    June 17, 2011

    Uhh, wow. Just wow. This is great post, no?

  6. #6 J. J. Ramsey
    June 17, 2011

    On its face, this blog is almost like being smacked in the face with a wet cow.

  7. #7 SC (Salty Current)
    June 17, 2011

    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.

    I don’t share your distaste for these or your blanket interpretation. I say “Hm[mmmmm]” probably every day, out loud, when I encounter something I need to think through. I also write it frequently in my notes on books and articles. Its meaning depends on context and ranges from “Interesting point I should ponder” to “Dubious” to “This person appears to have an agenda.” “Uh” and “Um,” which I also use in note-taking (often alone: “Uh.”), also vary in meaning for me according to context, but usually stand for a physical expression of surprise, confusion, or skepticism. To me, it’s about conveying facial cues verbally and summarizing complex responses more succinctly. (Doesn’t work sometimes: my response of “?” can cause problems.) And I suppose I just enjoy bringing those sounds into writing, just as it would be fun to start my written sentences with “Furrows brow,…”.

    “Deeply” and “profoundly” might be overused, but they’re meaningful modifiers that have their place. Some arguments are troubling. Some are profoundly so.

    And I like that use of “interrogated.” I think I just used it for the first or second time recently, and plan to continue. But then, I’m a sociologist. :)

  8. #8 Larry
    June 17, 2011

    Dickish, pedantic post.

  9. #9 CarlosT
    June 17, 2011

    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.

    Unless the word “almost” by itself is just beyond the pale, then I don’t really see the point on this one. Following the example, I would think that what the experience was actually like was very nearly, but not quite, pain inducing. How would you recast the sentence to express the same idea?

    What about the following sentence: “the article was almost acceptable.” Is that somehow worse than saying “the article was just barely not acceptable”? Or “the article was very nearly acceptable”?

  10. #10 ppnl
    June 17, 2011

    I have always used the “Neandertal” pronunciation just because it sounds cool. Pretentious even. But every source I have seen lists both pronunciations as correct.

  11. #11 J. J. Ramsey
    June 17, 2011

    CarlosT, I think in the “almost” example that our host gave, one could simply remove the “almost” from “almost painful” and still keep the gist of the sentence. One could also rewrite the sentence to use a more colorful simile. Depending on the circumstance, a better solution might even be to show Joe having a socially awkward interaction with a girl, rather than tell.

    “Almost acceptable” has a clear meaning. It describes something that could have met a standard if minor alterations to it were made. “Almost painful,” on the other hand, is far more vague.

  12. #12 sam
    June 17, 2011

    “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.”

    What wourld be a better word?

  13. #13 Guy in the Back
    June 17, 2011

    “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.”

    I have friends who consider themselves very smart who do this all the time – name-drop something fairly obscure, and then immediately explain the reference because they KNOW that the reference is obscure.

    It seems to me it would save time and effort to just bring copies of your college transcripts around to hand out instead.

  14. #14 Charles Sullivan
    June 17, 2011

    Although not as common as it used to be, one expression I find annoying is “in the final analysis….”

    It reminds me of dogmatic Marxist, the revolution-is-inevitable crap.

  15. #15 Carl
    June 18, 2011

    @

    Actually, Marx wasn’t a Determinist:

    http://marxmyths.org/peter-stillman/article.htm

  16. #16 JimV
    June 18, 2011

    Can I plead that when I first read about them, “Neanderthal” was the common usage, and I didn’t hear that “Neandertal” is now preferred until some 30 or 40 years later? (Bejing was Peking in those days also.)

    The best thing I learned in my Freshman English class in college was to go back over what you’ve written and cross out words and phrases which don’t really add anything, as well as things which don’t literally mean what you want them to, because you’ll find them if you look. Of course, that means by the time I’ve typed and checked a comment, someone else has usually beaten me to it (and still I screw up).

    Pet peeve: oh my god, or OMG – more spoken than written. Some people I know use it in at least every other sentence. As in, “Oh my god, Wal-Mart is having a sale on oven mitts.” Or for emphasis, “Oh. My. God. Wal-Mart … .” Or the double use: “OMG, OMG, Wal-Mart … .” Or the double with punctuation, “O. M. G. O. M. G. Wal-Mart … .” I think I’ve even heard a triple.

  17. #17 Thony C.
    June 18, 2011

    The correct spelling is Neanderthal, which is a location in Germany. Due to the great consonant shift in the High Germany dialects in the Middle Ages the ‘h’ is silent.

  18. #18 Charles Sullivan
    June 18, 2011

    @ Carl

    Notice the suffix -ist.

  19. #19 Bruce Gorton
    June 18, 2011

    Umm, hmmm, to be sure our friend raises some points which are deeply troubling no? To be sure it appears on its face that he has interrogated modern blog phraseology like a real autodidact, which begs the question of whether these phrases are ever useful, yes?

    One cannot begin to encompass the feelings of what a big damn deal this is.

    Whoa! Looks almost like someone has too much time on his hands. What?

    /Psuedo-speak parody.

  20. #20 Lassi Hippeläinen
    June 18, 2011

    “The correct spelling is Neanderthal, which is a location in Germany.”

    The correct spelling for the place name is Neandertal.
    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/homs/spelling.html

  21. #21 Valhar2000
    June 18, 2011

    Wow, just, wow. Honestly, “waste of time” does not even begin to describe the almost painful quality of this post. It begs the question: how come our good friend Jason Rosenhouse has so much free time on his hands?

  22. #22 tayfun
    June 18, 2011

    Paylaşım için teşekkürler.

  23. #23 fancyflyer
    June 18, 2011

    Did William Safire ever host a blog? If he did I regret having missed it. Carry on, Jason.

  24. #24 Hege F.
    June 18, 2011

    Sorry, while I (generally) share your ideas on evolution and religion, I’m with Stephen Fry in this ;-) http://youtu.be/J7E-aoXLZGY I also happen to think that words, expressions and pronounciations obey their own rules for survival and reproduction…

  25. #25 Klio
    June 18, 2011

    What a condescending post. It seems like you are not at all against being obnoxious, you just want people to be more sophisticated about it.

  26. #26 awol8
    June 18, 2011

    There is no difference in pronunciation between ‘Neanderthal’ and ‘Neandertal’. The first is simply an older spelling.

  27. #27 Jerry Coyne
    June 18, 2011

    Jason Rosenhouse as Andy Rooney—I love it! Except that some of us have “websites” rather than “blogs”. . . .

  28. #28 TBruce
    June 18, 2011

    “Methinks” must die.

    Burn it to ashes, then bury the remains 6 feet under, in concrete.

    Who the hell do you think you are – Shakespeare?

  29. #29 Norm
    June 18, 2011

    You know what else is annoying? Posing a question, immediately followed by your answer.

    NewEnglandBob beat me to it.

  30. #30 Bruce Gorton
    June 18, 2011

    TBruce

    No – Popeye.

  31. #31 MartinDH
    June 18, 2011

    “Neandertal” is the name of the valley in which the remains of “Neanderthal” man were found (both pronounced “tal”).

    The Germans changed the spelling of “thal” to “tal” (= “valley”) at the beginning of the 20th c to correspond to the changed pronunciation. Homo neanderthalis was named before this change and, because of the rules of taxonomy, the original spelling is retained for both the binomial and common names.

  32. #32 Garnetstar
    June 18, 2011

    Great post, Jason, an excellent use of your time. Good writing is crucially important.

    I loathe “dialogue” too.

    JimV @16: “The best thing I learned in my Freshman English class in college was to go back over what you’ve written and cross out words and phrases which don’t really add anything, as well as things which don’t literally mean what you want them to…”

    Yes. Strunk and White: Omit unnecessary words! Omit unnecessary words! OMIT UNNECESSARY WORDS! Omit…..

  33. #33 lylebot
    June 18, 2011

    The difference between “dialogue” and “conversation” to me is that “dialogue” implies two people monologuing at each other, while “conversation” implies actual exchange of ideas. Thus “dialogue” is actually a good work to describe science/faith communication (I am not saying we should strive for “conversation”, BTW).

    I agree with most of your complaints about stylistic tics. I totally disagree about “begging the question”. As a phrase with a technical meaning, it’s stupid—if you’re writing a technical work, just say what you mean; don’t beat around the bush with an unclear idiom. I think we’d all be better off if we just lost the technical meaning of the phrase and used it only in its popular sense, which is actually an intuitive interpretation of those words in that order.

    A couple of your other complaints are similarly pedantic/prescriptivist and not supported by the science of linguistics. Prescriptivism is the creationism of language; it’s insisting that some word or phrase has a particular meaning despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Reading Language Log regularly should cure one of prescriptivist leanings.

  34. #34 Mike Magee
    June 18, 2011

    This piece is not a good advertisement for Jason. His inner dogmatist is hanging loose. Preference in style is entirely subjective. Only pedants harp on about it. It is sound advice to stick to what you are good at. Jason should stick to science. We can agree on it because it is objective!

  35. #35 Edwiin
    June 18, 2011

    There’s just no [Like] button to individually tag those paragraphs that I particularly like. Listing them here would take effort.

    A manual that generally points out what makes you tick.
    [and keep you distracted. *laughs*]
    I’d be fun to trigger you and observe your reaction.

    Besides that, Good article!
    I’m sure there’s more to the list.
    Looking forward.

  36. #36 Edwiin
    June 18, 2011

    SC (Salty Current),

    If I were your friend, I’d make [Hmmm], [Uh] & [Um] self-inking stamps and present to you as gifts.

    Use them on your books/notepads, it pretty fun
    Its effect might be surprising, especially when you or someone else reads it.

  37. #37 Bill Door
    June 18, 2011

    The use of ‘conversation’ and ‘dialogue’ in the way you describe disturbs me most because of its vagueness: if science and religion are ‘in conversation,’ what is it exactly that they are engaged in? Who is representing each side, and what are they literally doing?

    You should append to your list the rules Orwell gave in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language.’

    1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
    3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

  38. #38 Derek in DC
    June 18, 2011

    Most of the doctor’s complaints fall under the heading of, as Ken Smith calls it, “Junk English” (http://tinyurl.com/3w9y575). Stylistically, I think it’s good to be aware of the clichés that find their way into your writing, but as long as you’re communicating, worrying about persnickety pedants is counterproductive.

  39. #39 Fred
    June 18, 2011

    You know what drives me crazy? Redundancies such as “overused cliches.” And speaking of cliches, can we stop referring to rhetorical pet peeves, rhetorical wood sheds, rhetorical self-puffery, and rhetorical kicks in the crotch?

    Methinks someone quite famous once spoke of first removing the beam from one’s own eye. Or some such cliche.

  40. #40 Pieter B
    June 18, 2011

    There’s a long-standing rule of internet combat that the first person to make a Hitler comparison automatically loses the argument.

    That’s a misunderstanding of Godwin’s Law, which is

    As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

    Godwin’s Law FAQ. The misinterpretation/misstatement of Godwin’s Law is one of my feral peeves.

  41. #41 Cameron
    June 18, 2011

    And while we’re at it, there is no such thing as a “Neanderthal”

    The species is permanently named Homo neanderthalensis and according to Google Scholar ‘Neanderthal’ was used in twice as many articles as ‘tal’ and a quarter of the articles used both variants. Regardless of pronunciation, there is no unambiguously ‘correct’ common name.

  42. #42 Jason Rosenhouse
    June 18, 2011

    Pieter B —

    That’s a misunderstanding of Godwin’s Law…

    No it isn’t, and there’s a reason I didn’t identify what I said as Godwin’s Law. It’s actually a variation on Godwin’s Law that is very commonly said among bloggers.

  43. #43 Ewelina Gonera
    June 18, 2011

    “Wow”, I really enjoyed your “blog”, but I “almost” spat my coffee out when you finished it off with the cliche “off the top of my head”!

  44. #44 Lenoxus
    June 18, 2011

    I’m sure I’m not the only one reminded of Calvin and Hobbes.

    That aside, I have to (hypocritically) add a language peeve of my own: when people give a range of numbers in a phrase that ought to refer to only one. For example, “You should pack at least three to five T-shirts”, or “This species of tree can grow upwards of fifteen or twenty feet”, or “On average, Americans watch two to three hours of TV per day”. In every case, there’s an unnecessary number given.

    I think what causes this is the need to broadcast one’s uncertainty (thus appearing humble and/or lowing the probability of being shown wrong). Or perhaps there is an unspoken sense that, for example, “maximum” can mean either “The absolute highest quantity” or “The highest quantity that you, the listener, are likely to encounter; the highest ‘normal’ amount”. Still bugs me, though.

  45. #45 skeptifem
    June 18, 2011

    Who cares as long as you can understand the point of the writing? I appreciate good writing, a lot, but I also appreciate the fact that people who aren’t capable of it may still have something important to say. Specifically, people who may not have been privileged enough to develop snotty opinions on what kind of phrases should be off-limits to others. Does anything listed interfere with clarity? I don’t think so.

  46. #46 Prof. Bleen
    June 18, 2011

    The idea that the first to invoke Hitler loses an argument is better described as a corollary of Godwin’s Law.

  47. #47 randyextry
    June 18, 2011

    You left out:

    ironically enough
    at the end of the day
    very unique
    irregardless (I know it’s a real word, but it’s stupid)

    and, for sports commentators specifically:

    ambassador for the game

    and “heir apparent,” when what is meant is “heir.”

  48. #48 Lenoxus
    June 18, 2011

    Prof. Bleen:

    The idea that the first to invoke Hitler loses an argument is better described as a corollary of Godwin’s Law.

    It may still be basically true, but how is it a corollary of the observation that Hitler is bound to be brought up? The “Law” (if strictly defined as that observation) doesn’t actually talk about winners or losers, or proscribe behavior at all. It’s just as consistent to believe in both that Law and that the first person to bring up Hitler wins! I call it “Lenoxus’s Law”, and anyone who disagrees is a Nazi.

  49. #49 GeoJim
    June 18, 2011

    Lenoxus –
    It appears that you have a problem with someone accounting for statistical error, T-shirt example excluded.

  50. #50 Neil Rickert
    June 19, 2011

    “… has thereby announced to the world that he needs lessons in proper usage.”

    I’m scoring your post as a forfeit, based on that appeal to “proper usage.”

  51. #51 J.C. Samuelson
    June 19, 2011

    I am guilty of almost all of the rhetorical crimes you mentioned.

  52. #52 Tom C
    June 19, 2011

    We all have our stylistic pet peeves and language, written or verbally communicated, that drives us nuts. One of my own is when someone, when ending their few tangential comments about a central topic, begins the next sentence with “With that said…” How utterly useless.

    Reading The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention, for me, really shed light on how language dynamically evolves, including slang and most of the language pet peeves folks point out. It was enlightening to read how many people, in each generation, complain about the younger generation and their “incorrect” use of language, listing their pet peeves like Jason did. Naturally, they assume their language is the correct and proper way of speaking and writing. That younger generation seamlessly incorporates most of these changes into their language structure, but then, going on, of course, to complain that they don’t understand their kids’ strange language (OMG, WTF!). Have you ever tried to listen to and understand spoken Middle English? It’s bad enough to try to understand the written word, let alone try to understand the spoken word!

    And so language evolves such that our own tongue will look and sound so very foreign to those 500 years hence!

  53. #53 Brian
    June 19, 2011

    One of my pet peeves is reading blog posts by writers who are far better at expression than I. It’s egregious. Jason is a prime example, and has no shame. Just wow.

  54. #54 Brian
    June 19, 2011

    I guess this guy is a poseur?

    To be sure, this cursory invocation of democratic progress is an over-simplification:

    http://logosjournal.com/2011/farewell-to-democracy/

  55. #55 J. J. Ramsey
    June 20, 2011

    A phrase that I’ve come to find annoying when used outside of its proper context is “null hypothesis.” If someone uses that term and isn’t discussing p-values and the variables that he/she is trying to show are correlated, then chances are that he/she is misusing the term as a sciency-sounding way of saying “default assumption.”

  56. #56 GravityIsJustATheory
    June 20, 2011

    It’s a miserable excrescence the rhetorical world would be better off without. This is obvious, no?

    One common expression that I was warned against using is “obvious” or “obviously”.

    Because if something really is obvious, there is no need to say so, and if it is no obvious, it just makes you look pompous.

    A personal peeve of mine is the misuse of “methodology” to mean “method”. It isn’t just a fancy way of saying the latter (and if it was, that would also be a good reason not to use it). Ditto for other examples of “misusing a technical term because you mistakenly think it’s a posh way of saying something simple”.

    “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.”

    I’ve always seen “on its face” used (or so I’ve assumed it it to be used) to mean “superficially appears”.

  57. #57 Fargus
    June 20, 2011

    @lylebot:

    Re: begging the question, you’re exactly right. The technical meaning of the phrase seems only to have survived in order for some people to signal how smart and condescending they are. The phrase doesn’t make sense as constructed and is particularly ill-suited to modern usage. There should be no problem with speakers generally adopting usages that make sense to them, and the pretentious among us ought not stand athwart linguistic history yelling “Stop!”

  58. #58 Lenoxus
    June 20, 2011

    Tom C wrote:

    And so language evolves such that our own tongue will look and sound so very foreign to those 500 years hence!

    English is a bit of an outlier in terms of rapid change, compared to most other languages. The development of the printing press somewhat stabilized its written form, and I imagine that mass communication (eg television) will have a similar effect on spoken English, maybe even causing the dialects to become more similar. Although it’s also possible that things like the Internet make variant usage propogate more quickly, speeding up the change.

  59. #59 IW
    June 21, 2011

    Jason, have you ever searched your blog for the number of times you’ve used ‘entitled’ when you should have used ‘titled’?!

    Unfortunately we have to swallow our pet peeves in order to read the good stuff!

  60. #60 Abbie
    June 21, 2011

    The Stephen Fry video linked above says it all, really.

  61. #61 Rob Monkey
    June 21, 2011

    Jason, I’ll go ahead and say that people who think it’s condescending or pretentious to use correct language can go pound sand. I get that language changes and all, but sometimes wrong is just wrong. For instance, one of my personal language peeves is people who can’t get expressions right. You’re not a “third wheel” when you feel like an unwanted addition to a group, you’re a “fifth wheel.” A fifth wheel is a useless addition to a vehicle, adding a third wheel to a two-wheeled vehicle makes it more stable.

    The expression I’d most like to see die a horrible death? “Moving forward.” I started hearing that stupid phrase in the corporate world, and it’s on news shows, interviews, and everywhere! It sounds like you’re either trying to shut someone else’s idea down by trying to move to a new subject, or it sounds like you’re a dumbass who repeats meaningless phrases because your boss does. Neither of these is a good thing. “Moving forward” is the new “proactive.”

    Oh, and I’ll disagree with Fred, I don’t think “overused cliches” is a redundancy. Some cliches are simply a fun way to express an idea, and they are not all overused. I will agree that the ones that are overused are totally annoying

  62. #62 Chris V.
    June 22, 2011

    Lenoxus –
    While I agree with your T-shirt and height examples, saying the average is 2 to 3 hours is just saying that the average it somewhere between the 2 numbers. The 3 isn’t an extra number, it is one fewer number than if the actual average were 2.67 hours, and is easier on the North American ear than a decimal.

  63. #63 M.
    June 23, 2011

    I love the blog, and I’m usually completely with Jason on most issues, but I have to agree with comment #8: this is a dickish, pedantic post.

  64. #64 Freetham Choade
    June 26, 2011

    this is a dickish, pedantic post.

    And that’s bad because…

    One of the only” doesn’t make sense. “The only one” makes sense. “One of only N” makes sense. “One of only a few” makes sense.

  65. #65 Derek
    July 31, 2011

    “Jason, I’ll go ahead and say that people who think it’s condescending or pretentious to use correct language can go pound sand. I get that language changes and all, but sometimes wrong is just wrong.”

    What criteria should we use to determine what constitutes “correct language,” and what is “just wrong?”

  66. #66 Primateus
    July 31, 2011

    Lots of butthurt responses I see. You struck a nerve. Good post.

  67. #67 Dave Regis
    August 1, 2011

    1. Got the 1960s reference but isn’t there an extra unpronounceable letter in his name? http://www.worldchesschampions.com/admin/wcc_images/TalBot1960.jpg That is, it only rhymes with Neandert(h)al if a speaker of English mispronounces it…

    2. “pompous and full of yourself”? Someone with just one of those qualities would be bad enough, but with both… hardly bears thinking about.

    3. I have learned not to cringe when reading barbaric adjectival and adverbial forms such as “real fast” and “Think different.” Most of the time, anyway.

    4. Advice for Jason: Never read Sartre’s Nausea.

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