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Stop Saying That!

by Peter Donnelly

This page is about some of the things people (especially in the media) commonly say that I wish they would stop saying. With a few exceptions, it’s not about grammatical mistakes or usages that are no longer worth fighting about, nor is it about tiresome cliches; it’s about using the language carelessly, without considering whether the words chosen are really the best tools for the job, or even whether they mean anything at all.

all the hallmarks of

“I think we would agree...that it does contain all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda and in particular al-Qaeda AP [Arabian Peninsula],” says the U.S. Homeland Security secretary about bombs placed on two aircraft in October 2010. Similarly, a State department spokesman said an attack on the American embassy in Yemen “bore all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda.” A subhead in the Telegraph reads: “The Times Square car bomb in New York bears all the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda attack on central London three years ago.” According to Merriam-Webster, a hallmark is “a distinguishing characteristic, trait, or feature.” What are these mysterious hallmarks that identify al-Qaeda bombs and attacks? Don’t these spokesmen just mean that they believe al-Qaeda to be the most likely culprits?

and/or

This compound conjunction is almost always a sign of fuzzy thinking, or hedging. “Dogs must be on leash and/or under obedient control,” reads a park sign that devotes several square feet to admonitions and warnings. On leash or obedient is pretty clear: you can use a leash or not, as necessary. But there must have been some vague doubt in the writer’s mind about bull mastiffs on a leash but not under control, so the and was slipped in there as insurance. The result is confusion. If Fido is disobedient, but only weighs 8 pounds, is he allowed in the park on a leash?

An American Consulate advises that a certain application can be made “on a walk-in basis on any Monday and/or Tuesday.” Try to get your head around that one. And a police officer is quoted as saying, with logic calculated to short-circuit any android brain: “It was an apparent armed robbery of an armoured vehicle and/or vehicles.”

arguably

According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (that monument to the descriptive approach to usage), “the objection of British commentators that arguably is merely a faddish replacement for perhaps and probably is off-target; arguably may be close in meaning to those two, but it carries its own connotation.” I don’t dispute that conclusion, and some of their citations support it; for example, in “the weaknesses of the Middle Eastern states are arguably the result of their failure to recognize [etc.]”, the premise is clearly something on which reasoned argument can be brought to bear. But it’s still true that arguably is a vogue word, and misused where it suggests only conjecture (“arguably the longest organisms on earth”) or taste (“arguably the best song of all time”).

ate bacon, eggs, and drank orange juice

This doesn’t come up in speech that often, but it’s rampant in writing, even professionally edited writing. Some people have got it into their heads that you can’t have more than one and in a sentence. In fact, you can have as many as you need to make sense. Clearly, in the example, there are two word pairs that need to be joined by a conjunction: bacon and eggs, and ate and drank. Here’s a more sophisticated but equally wrong case, from the Globe and Mail: “Sarah Waters has four bestsellers under her belt, a whole list of literary awards, and she’s been short-listed for the Man Booker and Orange prizes.” That sentence is awkward but at least comprehensible, which can’t be said for the following, from the same site: “Dodgers fans learned about Jamie's affair with a club staffer, a bodyguard, and the couple’s seven houses.” And again from the Globe, a sentence that is reduced to nonsense by the reluctance to put in a conjunction where it belongs: “Of course there have been exceptions aplenty to this enlightened form of democracy – the FLQ, Trudeau-loathing Albertans, as well as haters of Muslims, blacks, immigrants, Catholics, Jews and other bigots who have sullied our history, to name only some.” Haters of other bigots?

baby animal

In a story about a newborn giraffe, the Vancouver Province five times referred to the animal as a baby and did not once use the word calf. They even thrust the word redundantly into the headline: “New Baby Female Giraffe Born.” Worse, a zoo official was quoted as calling the animal a “baby girl.”

News media, in their endless pandering to our appetite for cuteness, consistently refer to newborn whales, eagles, and other animals as babies, as if they were human. Oddly, this practice seems to apply only to animals that are naturally wild; we don’t hear about baby dogs, or cats, or cows. The English language is rich in terms for juvenile animals—words like cub, chick, eaglet, and fry. When not talking to our own two-year-olds, could we please use them?

I almost moved this entry to the Weasel Words page after reading that the Vancouver Aquarium was sponsoring a “name the baby beluga” contest and urging readers to “get to know the baby beluga.” The keeping of whales in captivity is regarded by many, including me, as cruel, and it’s disturbing to see the keepers portraying their captive animals as cute, cuddly “babies” instead of what they are: wild animals, bred to rove over vast seas, but imprisoned in small pens.

begs the question

There are dozens of grammar sites out there that complain about the use of this phrase in the sense of raises the question. All I’m going to say about it is that the last public figure to use begs the question correctly in a sentence was Richard Nixon. Everyone else should just stop saying it.

can be seen from space

The Grand Canyon, David Attenborough breathlessly informs us in one of his otherwise superb documentary films, is “large enough to be seen from space.” So what? My back yard can be seen from space, as I have verified on Google Earth.

center

Almost everything is a center these days, whether it be a skyscraper or a coin-exchange machine. This phenomenon has become so widespread that I have devoted a separate page to it, called (what else?) The Center Center.

could save you X percent (or more!)

This one almost belongs on the Weasel Words page, because it’s often a deliberate deception used by advertisers. “Fifteen minutes could save you 15 percent or more,” trumpets an insurance company in a blanket ad campaign. Well, yes, you could save 15 percent by switching to their services, or you could save 50 percent, or you could save nothing at all. The figure of 15 percent is not a promise, or an average, or anything else than an arbitrary figure thrown out as bait.

The same goes for any sale that promises up to 50 percent off, although in this case the sellers would presumably have to mark down at least one item to half the nominal price in order to stay on the right side of the law. In the category of utter meaninglessness, the in-store radio at Winners tells us to remember that “everything in the store is up to 60 percent off every day.” Losers.

“Many on board are believed to have paid as much as $50,000 each for the trip,” reports the CBC of a shipful of migrants. What does this mean? That many are believed to have paid something (implying that others travelled for free), and at least one of them paid the amount stated? Or that many paid this amount, others less? It’s impossible to know.

I won’t even get into the up to...or more part; it should be evident to anyone that up to 50 percent or more is completely devoid of meaning, despite how often you see it.

cowardly attack

Violent acts, especially by terrorists, are often condemned as cowardly. I guess the idea is that if you attack someone who is not capable of self-defense, you are as much a coward as a strong man who robs only the infirm. But is this always true? No doubt there are many brave people (however misguided or malignant) practising terrorism—especially suicide bombers. Anyway, if lack of bravery is measured by the reluctance to face risks, surely killing people with drones is the ultimate act of cowardice.

See Timothy Noah’s perceptive remarks in Slate.

desperate

Words do tend to lose force as time goes by—absolutely, for example, is now just a synonym for yes, and incredibly has all but replaced very—but for me the word desperate cannot lose its association with despair. If you claim to be desperately in love or desperate to get tickets for the game, you imply (even if only in jest or hyperbole) that you have no chance of happiness if you do not attain your object. However, the grief pornographers (see unimaginable grief, below) have now appropriated the word as yet another instrument for plucking at our heartstrings. A news story begins: “The grief-stricken parents of [a teenager found dead on the street] are desperate for answers about their daughter’s death.” No doubt they are bewildered and would like to know more, but are we to believe that their hope for peace of mind hinges on a coroner’s report? Another story states that “nearly 20 years after the disappearance of [a boy], his parents will make a desperate plea for information on what happened to the four-year-old.” Having kept their hopes alive for this long, these brave parents are not likely to be suddenly lapsing into despair, but the reporter could not resist the urge to make the story a bit more sensational.

Elsewhere the word seems to mean nothing more than eager. A soccer player is said to be “desperate to score” in a particular game, even though he already has one of the best scoring records in the league. A hotel advertises “rooms that are desperate to receive you.” A car company tells us that as soon as you open the door of one of their models, “you will be desperate to climb into one of the four perfectly sculpted seats.”

emergency situation

What’s the difference between an emergency and an emergency situation? Four syllables. Ditto for crisis (situation).

football fields long

Who decided that football field should be a standard unit of length? In the U.S. this now seems to be the commonest way of measuring big things. We are told on a College of Engineering (!) website that the Great Pyramid “stretches two and a half football fields on each side [and] stands one and a half football fields high.” Why not say 250 and 150 yards, or the equivalent round numbers in feet or meters? For that matter, why not give the exact dimensions? Maybe the idea is to give us a sense of the hugeness of the thing, but I doubt if the image helps that much, especially if we’re required to mentally stand a football field on end.

Anyway, how long is a football field? The 100 yards between goal lines or the full 120 yard length of the playing surface (or, for that matter, the 110 and 150 yards respectively of the Canadian field)? An Australian site reports that the Queen Mary 2 is “almost four football fields in length.” Is that the standard soccer field of 100 yards, or the Aussie Rules pitch of up to 200 yards? (The ship is actually 377 yards long; they could have just said so and let their readers convert to the sports venue of their choice.)

gale-force winds

“The area was lashed by gale-force winds,” we are often told by news services. Since a gale is by definition a wind of a certain strength, that is rather like saying the length of a yardstick instead of a yard. In Australia, it even seems that a gale warning is officially called a gale-force wind warning. Beware of stormy tempests and swiftly-flowing rapids.

See also weather conditions.

growing levels of

“A new Gallup poll is finding growing levels of support among Americans for nuclear energy.” No, it isn’t. For one thing, levels don’t grow, they rise. For another, if there is a level of support, it is surely singular and not plural. But in fact the poll finds simply growing support. As for “The people...are displaying growing levels of vitamin A deficiency,” why not just say a greater deficiency of Vitamin A?

A Toronto mayoral candidate announced: “Absent a more substantive level of support, I must conclude my efforts.” She meant, of course, “without more support,” but evidently felt obliged to give verbal grandeur to the occasion.

We see a similar use of other words that imply measurement where none is called for: a greater degree of effort is really just greater effort.

hate crime

In December 2015 the Daily Telegraph reported that a minor celebrity was being investigated for a “hate crime” after he made a joke at a public event about not being able to see a black man in a dark corner. A community activist is quoted as saying, “A hate crime is a hate crime. Anything that puts someone down because of their race, colour or creed is a hate crime.”

Actually, it isn’t. Leaving aside whether the celebrity was speaking out of hatred, as opposed to mere insensitivity, in Britain a hate crime is defined as “any criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice towards someone based on a personal characteristic.” The key thing is that it must be a criminal offence to begin with. If you egg your neighbors’ house, that’s a crime. If you egg it because they’re Albanians, that’s a hate crime. The mere act of hating, or of expressing hatred, is not yet criminal, as much as some people would like it to be. (Update: I’m dismayed to learn that, after an investigation, the celebrity was in fact charged with “racially aggravated abuse.”)

Increasingly the word hate is used as a bludgeon to beat down any disagreement with trending views. Longtime feminist Germaine Greer, for example, has been accused of “spreading hatred” because of her stated “transphobic” view that “Just because you lop off your dick and then wear a dress doesn't make you a fucking woman.” Whether you agree with that view or not, it’s at least a tenable one. Greer went on to say, incidentally, that “some people are born intersex and they deserve support in coming to terms with their gender.” These don’t seem to be the words of someone who cannot accept the differences among humans.

I realize that by objecting to the misuse of these words I risk being classed as a hater — a word now defined by the online Oxford dictionary as “a negative or critical person.”

increasingly younger

“While these [sexual] issues can be sensitive in nature...they represent the realities our children face at increasingly younger ages,” says the executive director of an education organization. I get more unhappier every time I see this. Perhaps a simple younger wouldn’t do, since the speaker wishes to convey that the threshold is still moving, but increasingly young or ever younger would surely be better English. “Increasingly shorter product life cycles” are either increasingly short (i.e. decreasing) or shorter, not both. Indeed, I don’t see that increasingly can meaningfully modify a comparative, unless an increase in the rate of acceleration is implied, as might conceivably be the case if you said “the car was going increasingly faster.”

Islamophobia

A phobia, according to the online Oxford dictionary, is “an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.” Surely there is nothing extreme, let alone irrational, about fearing a religion that stands opposed to many of your own values: in my own case, for example, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, equality of the sexes, the teaching of science rather than myth, and secularism in general. (As far as the first two are concerned, bear in mind that every Muslim is, in theory and sometimes in practice, subject to death for choosing to leave the religion; and flogging or death can be meted out to anyone who commits “blasphemy,” which could be anything from drawing an image of Muhammed to questioning any part of his writings.)

The other problem is that Islamophobia is used to lump fear of Islam together with bigotry toward Muslims as people. Yet the two are not at all the same thing. One can warn against Islam while recognizing that individual Muslims are as good or bad as the rest of us; at least, like Jews and Christians, they can be good insofar as they ignore the more bloody-minded parts of their scriptures.

Like some other words, such as hate, the word Islamophobia has been turned into a weapon for shutting down debate. Any Canadian, for example, who questions the wisdom of allowing wholesale Muslim immigration is immediately labelled an Islamophobe (i.e. extremist and irrational) and is denied a voice in the liberal media. And what happens when yet another atrocity is committed by “Islamists” or “jihadists” (who are just the Muslims who take the Koran most seriously)? The politicians and press put the blame on “terrorism,” as if that were an ideology, and warn us that the real danger is Islamophobia. It’s true that we shouldn’t blame all Muslims for the evil deeds of a few, but neither should we blame ourselves for not wanting to be dragged back into the Middle Ages by a creed that has never undergone an Enlightenment.

kids slain by father

The term kids is becoming prevalent largely because many young people, expecially teenagers, prefer not to be called children. But am I hopelessly old-fashioned to think that in a formal context, such as the reporting of a serious incident, kid is as out of place as gal or guy would be? I would never expect to see or hear it reported that “a gal was found dead yesterday,” yet increasingly we see kids not only in headlines but in the text of tragic stories. The term has even passed into law with Ontario’s smarmily titled Keeping Our Kids Safe at School Act. But it seems to me to deny children the dignity they deserve.

I find the use of terms of endearment equally distasteful in these headlines: “Newborn’s body recovered at dump, mom facing infanticide charge” and “Dad who killed three children denied release from psychiatric hospital.”

most have an average of

“Most vessels captured in the busy shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden fetch on average a ransom of $2m,” reports the BBC. This might make some kind of sense, if the idea is that the average doesn’t take into account the vessels that are not ransomed at all. But what about this: “While some of the island’s 400 Moais are more than 20 meters tall, most have an average height of 6 meters.” Does this mean that the average of heights less than 20 meters is 6 meters? We have no way of knowing. And I despair of extracting any meaning at all from “Most [tumors] are an average size of .75 of an inch to nearly four inches across.” Mathematics will be in a sad way if we all start using average to mean approximate(ly) or in the range of.

need you to

We sure seem to live in a needy society. Need to is driving to extinction other auxiliaries such as must, should, have to, ought to, and even might like to, as in the clickbait “Ten things you need to know about Kim Kardashian’s butt.” But the worst abuse is found in requests or commands in the form “I need you to do something.”

This clumsy idiom was almost unknown to our foreparents. Like many other current usages, it sprang into life around 1970, with the coming of the human potential movement, and it has been growing ever since. Part of sensitivity training is to avoid “you-statements” in favor of “I-statements”: since it would be rude or confrontational for me to suggest that you must do something—or, heavens forfend, for me to use the imperative—I express the desideratum as coming from my own “needs.” So the drill sergeant now says, “Okay, recruits! I need you to give me fifty push-ups.”

It’s amusing that we have come full circle, and the idiom is now seen by some as bossy, because it’s “all about me.”

negative impact

I’m not going to get into a rant about the weakening of the sense of impact, which is now widely used instead of the verb affect and the noun effect. That battle, if it was ever fought at all, is long over. The innovation was bound to succeed if only because people couldn’t cope with the heavy overloading of the words it replaces: tragedy affects the spirit, but it may effect change; it has an effect on our affects. I find him an affected person; I wish he would pack up his effects and go.

No, I have learned to grin and bear it when people say my little essays don’t “impact,” or “have an impact on,” their opinions. But I do want to draw attention to one nasty little word pair that is increasingly used to avoid directness. Negative (or negatively) impact is often used to dodge the impact (there, I’ve said it) of words like harm, hurt, and damage. The head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, for example, after taking $44,000 worth of management training, apologized to his staff for actions that had “unintended, sometimes negative impacts.” I think he meant that his actions were sometimes hurtful, but despite his reputation for forthrightness he just couldn’t bring himself to say it.

Inevitably, circumlocution introduces vagueness. A newspaper company reports that “the impact of newsprint pricing is expected to be slightly negative in the second half of 2010.” I suppose this means “the price of newsprint is expected to rise slightly and cut into our profits,” but I can’t be sure; it could mean just the opposite.

Finally, the phrase may be a sign of simple laziness. The person who asked, “Do student loans negatively impact your credit score?” reached for the closest buzzword instead of expending the mental energy required to come up with lower or reduce.

no rest for the weary

“As the old adage goes, there’s no rest for the weary.” Actually, the old adage is there’s no rest for the wicked, and besides being traceable back to Isaiah 57:21, it contains a germ of truth: a guilty conscience pursues you relentlessly. The phrase is now most often used in humorous self-deprecation, as in “I must get back to work. There’s no rest for the wicked.” No rest for the weary misses the point entirely, and besides that doesn’t even make sense: why would there be no rest for tired people?

This is not the only proverb whose point has been lost. “The proof is in the pudding.” What kind of proof can be found in a pudding? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

We often read that not all politicians, police, or members of other groups should be condemned because of “a few bad apples.” But the proverb says that one bad (or rotten) apple spoils the barrel.

offshore

The bending of this word to the senses of foreign, overseas, or abroad seems to have originated in the business world and from there made its way into common use. My theory is that it has enjoyed its decades in the sun because abroad sounds vaguely sexist, while foreign has succumbed to another kind of political correctness. Never mind that offshore is confusing and often at odds with what is meant. If you are putting your money into offshore oil, are you investing in drilling platforms off the coast, or in Arabian petroleum futures? Is money crossing the Mexican border from the United States going offshore?

on a frequent basis

I know this is a juggernaut that can’t be stopped. Historically, adverbs have disappeared to be replaced by other, stronger forms: thus the Latin lente, “slowly,” was replaced by lenta mente, “in a slow manner,” leading to Romance forms such as the French lentement. Still, I wish people would stop saying on a daily basis instead of daily (or every day), on a regular basis instead of regularly, on a frequent basis instead of often, and so on. Why use four words when one will do?

per se

Merriam-Webster offers this definition of per se: “by, of, or in itself or oneself or themselves; as such; intrinsically.” The original sense of in itself is illustrated in this headline: “Marijuana use per se not a ‘gateway’ to [hard] drug use, study says.” In other words, smoking cannabis may be associated with other activities that pose a risk of getting into other drugs, but is not in itself a risk. But nowadays per se is found far more often as a highfalutin replacement for exactly or truly: “It was fun but it wasn’t really a vacation, per se”; “I’m not on welfare per se, just food stamps.” “I am 5 foot 10 inches (which isn’t ‘tall’ per se)”.

Per se has a place in the language, but unfortunately it is being used indiscriminately to add a whiff of learning to common speech in places where it does not belong. Or should I say, where it does not belong per se?

personal belongings

“Please be sure to take your personal belongings.” What other kinds of belongings are there? (A tip of the hat to the late George Carlin for reminding me of this one, in his wonderful satire of airplane announcements.)

press charges

Hardly a day goes by without this phrase appearing in the news, often in the context of a victim not wanting to “press charges” against an offender. But, at least in Canada and the U.S., there’s no such concept. As one U.S. site explains, “Television and Hollywood movies sometimes create the impression that the victim decides whether to press charges and, therefore, whether the offender will be subject to criminal prosecution. This is not accurate.” There may be circumstances where charges do not proceed because the victim refuses to cooperate or begs the police not to take action, but private individuals have no legal power other than to lodge a complaint. After that, it’s up to the police and the prosecution service to decide whether charges are warranted and likely to result in a conviction. For that matter, they have the power to lay charges even if there is no complaint, and they often do so in cases of domestic assault.

price point

Merriam-Webster defines price point as “the standard price set by the manufacturer for a product,” but I think the OED has it right, labelling it as a marketing term for “a retail price, selected from the range of available or established prices as that most liable to attract consumers and ensure profitability.” One of their citations clarifies: “three hundred and ninety-nine dollars is a price point and four hundred and twelve dollars is not.” This correct usage (if such can be said of any marketingspeak) is exemplified here: “The new price is now the magic consumer price point of $99. Ninety nine dollars is the price point at which consumers will readily adopt [i.e. buy] a phone.”

Human nature being what it is, some people think they will sound smarter if they use price point when talking about simple price: “the TV is good at the price point I paid,” “Web hosting service for an unparalleled price point,” “single-family homes at this price point are unusual in the county,” and so on. These are probably the same people who think that anything difficult to learn has a steep learning curve.

she lay her head down

Here’s a classic case of hypercorrection. Everyone is taught not to use lay for lie, though it is common idiom. The supposed incorrectness of “He laid down and slept,” perhaps in combination with the vulgarity of “get laid,” has created a reflex reaction against every use of laid. I have read novels where some zealous but not very careful editor has replaced every occurrence with lay: “He lay down his weapons and surrendered.” It’s not rocket science, folks: lie, lay, has lain for the intransitive, lay, laid, has laid for the transitive (and, in common speech, the intransitive as well).

in shock

“Campus in shock after student stabbed” reads a typical headline. I find it difficult to believe that an entire population of students and faculty went into “a life-threatening condition that occurs when the body is not getting enough blood flow,” to quote one definition of the medical phenomenon known as shock. Perhaps some of those who learned of the incident were shocked, but I suspect that the great majority were only saddened or mildly alarmed. But these days the media are more interested in reporting the reaction to events than the events themselves, and the more sensation they can wring out of it the better.

Never mind a campus, how about an entire nation? AFP reports that “Georgia was in shock Saturday after the tragic death of one of its athletes overshadowed the opening of the Winter Olympics.”

should be required reading

Book reviewers say lots of things I wish they would stop saying, compelling and edgy being near the top of the list. But when they (and other commentators) say that some book or article should be required reading for parents, policy-makers, golfers, or the adult population in general, my hackles rise. Students have required reading; the rest of us, thankfully, can read what we bloody well please. I wonder if the headline-writers at the Seattle Times were aware of the irony when they wrote over a book review: “ ‘Liberty and Freedom’ should be required reading for all Americans.”

tamp down your enthusiasm

The OED, besides giving the expected definitions of tamp, makes note of the figurative sense “To oppress or constrict as by ramming; to subdue or contain by force,” giving as one citation “Carter may be gambling that he can tamp down the debate over the safety of nuclear power.” I think, though, that President Carter was actually hoping to damp down the debate, as one damps down a fire (nothing to do with water, by the way). I have found, so far, just one example of the phrase being used with the effect of containing by force: “Ethiopia’s rulers tamp down on press freedoms.” Almost always, people seem to mean damp down when they use tamp down with words like tension, expectations, and excitement. The New York Times, for example, writes: “But two weeks after taking office, [he] is still struggling to tamp down a furor over past statements.” The metaphor of subduing flames would be far more apt here than one of pressing down on a substance. After all, if you tamp down gunpowder, it is only so that it will explode more effectively.

the HMS

Many in the U.S. media can perhaps be forgiven for not knowing that HMS stands for Her/His Majesty’s Ship, and that you would never say “the His Majesty’s Ship Beagle.” It is more disturbing to see that British and Commonwealth writers are almost equally guilty when talking about their own nations’ warships. The Canadian media pretty regularly refers to the vessels of that country as the HMCS, and a quick web search leads to many instances of the HMAS and the HMNZS as well. Darwin might have set foot on “the USS Constitution,” but he sailed on “HMS Beagle.”

time frame

In the sense of a period of time that has a known beginning and end, time frame or timeframe can be useful: “Obama said...‘The absence of a time frame for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government’.” Unfortunately, the term is more often used when no frame is involved. “He was not sure of a time frame for raising the aircraft” means “He was not sure when the aircraft would be raised.” In “an agreement can be reached in a reasonably short time frame”—a usage citation given on a university language site—the word frame is superfluous. A company promises to deliver results “within a relatively short time frame”—why not just quickly?

It reminds me of one of my favorite bits of bafflegab from the days when I was being paid to turn the ramblings of elected politicians into prose for the ages. On being asked when something was going to happen, a minister replied: “Within a relatively near-term time horizon, Mr. Speaker.” Indeed, there seems to be a general reluctance to use the humble word soon. Are you as sick as I am of hearing that something will happen “sooner rather than later” or, even more nonsensically, “sooner than later”?

times smaller than

“Mars, whose two tiny moons combined are millions of times less massive than our full-size moon...”, says Scientific American, which ought to know better. A widely publicized new substance “10 times lighter than steel” is said to be “made from carbon molecules 50,000 times thinner than a human hair.” Finally, a NASA scientist is quoted as saying of an approach to Jupiter: “It was a very close flyby—three times closer than Cassini.”

Object A can be one-millionth the size of object B; that doesn’t make it one million times smaller, because if it is even one time smaller, it ceases to exist. To put it another way, you can only measure and compare bigness, not smallness. The same goes for weight/lightness, and distance/closeness.

truth wills out

I first ran across this in a manual of creative writing, and it turns out to be depressingly common: “What is the premise of this story? How about: ‘the truth wills out’?... The murderess gets caught in the end... The truth does will out.” It’s difficult to know what the author thinks “will” means here. In fact, it’s supposed to be the auxiliary verb forming the future tense, with “out” serving for “come out.” You can find it in The Merchant of Venice: “Truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man’s son may, but in the end truth will out.”

unimaginable grief

I don’t wish to belittle the sorrow felt by anyone who suffers the loss of a loved one, but why must it so often be described (especially in connection with celebrities) as unimaginable grief? The emotion can certainly be imagined by anyone who has gone through it, which includes a large part of the population. It seems that in this context unimaginable is simply a synonym for great.

We live in a society that seems to regard itself as emotionally crippled, where grief counsellors must be rushed in to help us cope with our feelings, begin the healing process, and finally achieve closure. Indeed, the same sort of psychobabble is applied to feelings of disappointment or regret that any healthy person ought to take in stride. The following appears in a news report about the closing of several little-used churches: “Losing their churches will be like suffering a death in the family and require an appropriate mourning process, clergy and parishioners said yesterday. ‘You have people in denial—they’ll fight and some people have just come to accept,’ said [a pastor].” In denial, by the way, means “refusing to admit the truth or reality of something unpleasant” (Merriam-Webster); I doubt if any of the bereaved parishioners were quite that far gone.

The Canadian media are particularly shameless purveyors of what has been called grief porn. Take the story of the Olympic skater whose mother died a few days before her first performance. Of course we admire the young lady’s strength of character in soldiering on, but the news outlets obsessed over her bereavement with something bordering on prurience. A headline on a typical newspaper site lauds her “incredibly brave performance.” (As Inigo Montoya would say, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”) According to the lead paragraph of the main story, “They cried for her courage, they cried for her strength, they cried because, by skating with her heart broken, [she] broke theirs.” Later we are told that she performed well “in spite of the crushing burden of her grief.” And we are reminded once more, in case we didn’t get it yet, that she had been “grief-stricken” on hearing of her mother’s death.

Examples could be multiplied endlessly. A news story with the unfortunate headline “Shooting Reopens Old Wounds” begins: “The sister of a young man stabbed to death...36 years ago says she is reliving the pain of that tragedy after learning his killer is accused of gunning down two people...last week.” We are then treated to the verbal equivalent of a close-up shot of the woman “wiping away tears.” Again, I don’t deny the sincerity of the emotions, but why is this considered news?

See also desperate and in shock.

weather conditions

The definition of weather in the Concise Oxford Dictionary begins with the words “atmospheric conditions.” Redundancy isn’t automatically a bad thing; slip and slide is a pleonasm that rolls pleasantly off the tongue, and safe haven conveys a stronger sense than the little-used haven by itself. But weather is weather, period.

A television reporter states that an area is enduring “blizzard-like conditions.” Wouldn’t that be a blizzard?

Webster’s Dictionary

For a book that doesn’t exist, “Webster’s Dictionary” sure gets a lot of citations. Any dictionary publisher can put Webster in the title, and most in America do, for no other reason than marketing; my trusty Random House Unabridged Dictionary, for example, is now published as the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. (Merriam-Webster at least can claim descendancy from Noah Webster’s 1828 work.) A quotation from “Webster’s Dictionary” has no more authority or precision than a reference to “the Encyclopedia.”

In researching this entry I discovered some complaints from teachers about essays beginning with “Webster’s defines [the subject of this essay] as...”, and I cannot forbear quoting this gem: “Webster’s defines ‘dictionary’ as ‘the place where lazy writers find shitty ledes’.”

wellness

A quick search turns up millions of occurrences of health and wellness, but no consistent explanation of what the difference is. The OED defines wellness as “The state of being well or in good health.” Merriam-Webster says it is “the quality or state of being in good health especially as an actively sought goal,” giving the example lifestyles that promote wellness. But it seems to me that we got along just fine by promoting good health, and I can’t shake the feeling that any distinction exists only in the minds of new-age hucksters, rather as the graduates of business schools a few decades ago decided that it wasn’t enough to have goals; you must have goals and objectives. I stand to be corrected on this: if anyone can give me one instance of wellness doing a job that (good) health or well-being doesn’t do, I’d like to hear about it.

A government department in British Columbia was criticized for providing one of its buildings with a “wellness centre” in which employees could, among other things, play foosball. It seems that this was nothing but a recreation room.

wept openly

It seems that it is no longer enough to describe someone as weeping, they must weep openly. Indeed, a search for “wept openly” scores more hits than one for the verb without the adverb. Is there some non-open way of weeping in public? Perhaps if the face is covered? Nope: after a loss by the local hockey team, a Vancouver news site reported that “A Canucks fan in a jersey and goalie mask, outside a jam-packed [bar], wept openly.”

within miles of

“The bullet passed within inches of his head” conveys some meaning: within inches suggests less than a foot. But since there isn’t a common unit of distance bigger than a mile, I can’t extract any information from statements like “The hotel is conveniently located within miles of a golf course,” or “The asteroid will pass within miles of Earth.” I’m particularly disturbed when I see the phrase being used to incriminate: “The sheriff’s office said [the suspect] lived within miles of where the...sniper’s bullets struck.” (Note, though, that within miles can be used meaningfully in a negative statement: “There isn’t a golf course within miles of the hotel” suggests that the closest golf course is at least two miles away.)

Here’s an example of the same sort of journalistic fuzzy-mindedness combined with the hedging could: “It could be weeks at the earliest before the bridge...is re-opened.” So, the earliest it might happen is when? Well, it might be within some indeterminate number of weeks, or it might be tomorrow. As for when the bridge actually will reopen, that’s anyone’s guess.

without further adieu

This is just one of many common eggcorns, but since I’ve seen it lately in professional writing (with its usual spoken sense of “Without further introduction”), I’ll hang my little rant on it. Two things are apparent about those who are guilty of writing something like this. The first is that they don’t have a clear idea of what they’re saying; they’ve heard a phrase and they parrot it without any understanding of the underlying meaning. The second is that they don’t read; if they did, even without going back to Shakespeare, they would know the difference between adieu and ado. Is it really too much to expect that someone who makes a living as a writer should also be a reader of something more than social media posts?

world-class

I have heard this epithet used once in a way that made sense: a footballer was described as a “world-class player”, which was true, because he played for his national team at the world level; quite clearly he was a member of an elite class. However, you are far more likely to read of world-class facilities, entertainments, indeed anything that can be rated, even cities. But what sets a world-class hotel, for example, apart from any other? Is it a hotel worthy to be placed in any city of the world? Perhaps, at a stretch; but it is harder to justify world-class getaways, world-class fossil sites, and world-class deer hunts, to name just three that come up on one page of an internet search. A slogan for an automobile brand says it represents “The new class of world class.” So it is redefining a term that has no meaning to begin with?

The term reminds me of those signs you still occasionally see on burger joints in the middle of nowhere: World-famous! You just chuckle at those, because it’s a completely unprovable (and unfalsifiable) claim, not meant to be taken seriously. World-class, on the other hand, is part of the verbal arsenal of every politician and promoter who wants to push through another megaproject: you want a world-class stadium, don’t you?

See also
Weasel Words.