Author Topic: Doing battle with the most irritating phrases in English  (Read 14434 times)

Joe Carillo

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Doing battle with the most irritating phrases in English
« on: September 26, 2010, 12:28:16 PM »
For over five years now, I have been fighting the overuse of clichés in both writing and public discourse. I have particularly targeted the expression “at the end of the day,” which was voted as “the most irritating phrase in the English language” in a worldwide survey conducted by the London-based Plain English Campaign in 2004.

I am posting below six of the columns I wrote in The Manila Times in my campaign against clichés. (September 26, 2010)  

2005: A sorry trail of wasted words – Part I

There has been an upsurge in the use of the phrase “at the end of the day” in the Philippine legislature and broadcast media despite its having been voted as “the most irritating phrase in the English language” in a worldwide survey in 2004. In that survey conducted by the London-based Plain English Campaign among 5,000 respondents in 70 countries, “at the end of the day” joined “at this moment in time” and “with all due respect” among the top 30 irritating phrases.

Actually, “at this moment in time” took second place in that survey, sharing the ranking with the improper use of “like” as a form of punctuation (as in, you know, “She was like she didn’t trust me.”). I found it odd, however, that “at this moment in time” was registering rather feebly in my personal radar screen for overused English clichés in the Philippines. One would suppose that we Filipinos, whose standard is American English, would be in sync with the undesirable global tendency to use “at this moment in time,” but we weren’t. A little later I will explain why this isn’t happening, but at the moment, let’s focus first on “at this moment in time” as the world’s second most annoying phrase.

This expression, of course, simply means “now” or, putting it closer to the usual intent of its inveterate users, “right now.” And for some rhetorical purposes, it has two perfectly acceptable concise variants, “at this very moment” and “at this time.” Still, in the US and elsewhere, many academics, politicians, businesspeople, and broadcasters would rather use the longer phrase.

Take this utterance from a 2005 inaugural address by an American university president: “…I believe the best is yet to come. I believe [that] to be at the University at this moment in time (italicization mine) is to be part of an extraordinary alignment of the stars, witness to a perfect storm of opportunity.” Or this 2005 pronouncement by an American investment consultant: “Fighting the trend of a rising economy with bubbling inflation is not a wise investment move at this moment in time (italicization mine).”

Fanciers of “at this moment in time” no doubt use it in good faith, trusting in its expected power to give their words a stronger sense of immediacy, perhaps even a touch of elegance. Indeed, as with many other felicitous expressions that catch the people’s fancy, “at this moment in time” could very well have possessed such power when it was still a newly coined phrase. Through decades of overuse, however, it has already become terribly jaded and, as shown by the Plain English Campaign survey, is now such an exasperating world-class cliché.

Yet, as I observed earlier, this global distaste for “at this moment in time” doesn’t seem to register as strongly in the Philippines. The reason, I found out after a little bit of sleuthing, is that Filipinos are not that accustomed to using “at this moment in time.” They are much more predisposed to using its almost identical twin, “at this point in time,” as in this recent statement by a Philippine government spokesman: “The job of the executive branch at this point in time (italicization mine) is quiet service and vigilance, as we await the results of the canvass…We have a perpetual task to stand guard for democracy.” Indeed, based on a check just now of the World Wide Web using Google, the relative usage ratio in the Philippines between “at this point in time” and “at this moment in time” is roughly 10.5 to 1 in favor of the former—998 hits for “at this point in time” against 95 for “at this moment in time.”

This state of affairs, however, shouldn’t make us gloat that our preference for the less globally notorious “at this point in time” takes us Filipinos off the hook, so to speak. Far from it. “At this point in time” itself had long, long ago joined the realm of tiresome clichés. Way back in 1993, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English had already labeled it as “a bit of padded prose,” pointing out that “the Watergate hearings of the 1970s made many people conscious of it and determined to root it out of their language.”

So then, whenever “at this point in time” or its temporal variants begin to insinuate themselves into our English, let’s be prudent and heed the Columbia Guide’s very sensible advice: “A single word will usually do nicely: ‘At this point in time’ is ‘now’; ‘at that point in time’ was ‘then’; ‘at some point in time’ will be ‘sometime’.”

And, for good measure, forget “at this moment in time” altogether and stick to “now” or “right now” anytime. (October 24, 2005)

2005: A sorry trail of wasted words – Part II

Four of today’s most irritating phrases in the English language had fallen into disrepute not really for a grammar or semantic flaw but from severe and indiscriminate overuse. There’s really nothing intrinsically shoddy with “at the end of the day,” “at this moment in time” (or its almost identical twin, “at this point in time”), “with all due respect,” and “to be (completely) honest (with you),” and all of them probably even started out as lively and ingenious expressions. But they have become so far detached from their original context and so debased by unthinking use that they are now deadening clichés. As British literary critic and scholar Christopher Ricks had described a cliché, it “begins as heartfelt, and then its heart sinks.”

Some stock phrases in English, on the other hand, are inherently undesirable because they are too wordy and only tend to give a false depth and emphasis to what is being said. These expressions, which are called ineffectual phrases, don’t really add value to speech or writing; worse, they make their users sound fluffy or pretentious without meaning to. Our best policy is therefore to avoid these phrases altogether and to routinely use their more concise equivalents.

Here are some of the most common of these ineffectual phrases, along with the more concise words for them: “as a matter of fact” (“actually”), “for the purpose of” (“for”), “in the near future” (“soon”), “in the event that” (“if”), “in the eventuality that” (“if”), “with the exception of” (“except”), “in conjunction with” (“and”), “due to the fact that” (“because”), “by virtue of the fact that” (“because”), “on account of the fact that” (“because”), “owing to the fact that” (“because”), “in view of the fact that” (“since,” “because”), “in the absence of” (“without”), “is (was) of the opinion that” (“thinks that,” “thought that”), “as regards” (“about”), “with regard to” (“about”), “with respect to” (“about”), “it is interesting to note that” (just drop it), “needless to say” (just drop it), and “when all is said and done” (just drop it).

Another pitfall we must guard against is getting into the habit of converting verbs into wordy phrases built around a nominalization, in the mistaken belief that this makes a statement look or sound more important and impressive. On the contrary, phrases built around nominalizations not only make sentences longer and annoyingly obtuse but also obscure the idea being presented.

Here are some common wordy phrases that result from habitual nominalization, along with their simple verb equivalents: “take action on” (“act”), “give consideration to” (“consider”), “engage in the preparation of” (“prepare”), “conduct a discussion” (“discuss”), “make an assumption that” (“assume that”), “make a discovery of” (“discover”), “do (perform) an analysis of” (“analyze”), “result in a reduction” (“reduce”), and “reach a conclusion about” (“conclude”). When “–ion” words like these begin to mushroom in our writing or speech, it’s time to identify all of the needless nominalizations among them and make them revert to their active verb forms. In well-written prose, only a few truly useful nominalizations normally survive this de-nominalization process.

Wordiness also often results from habitual use of what are called repeater phrases. These are words commonly used together yet actually mean the same thing, forming tautologies. The problem can, of course, be remedied by simply dropping the extraneous words in the repeater phrase, but we need to cultivate a strong sensitivity to the repetition that often hides so well in such phrases.

Here are some common repeater phrases and their concise equivalents: “close proximity” (“close”), “new innovation” (“innovation”), “added bonus” (“bonus”), “exactly the same” (“the same”), “prior experience” (“experience”), “revert back” (“revert”), “minute detail” (“detail”), “close scrutiny” (“scrutiny”), “combine together” (“combine”), “surrounded on all sides” (“surrounded”), “free gift” (“gift”), “temporary reprieve” (“reprieve”), “exact replica” (“replica”), and “future plans” (“plans”).

Finally, we would all be spared from so much aggravation as readers and listeners if newspapers and the broadcast media only took a much more serious effort to rid their reportage and features of such numbing journalese as these: “placed under arrest” (“arrested”), “made good their escape” (“escaped”), “escaped injury” (“was not injured”), “kicked off the campaign” (“began the campaign”), “hammered out (or, worse, “forged”) an agreement” (“agreed”), “put in an appearance” (“appeared”), “razed to the ground” (“razed”), “last-ditch attempt” (“final attempt”), and “left in its wake a wide swath of destruction” (“caused so much destruction”).

We have now reached the end of the trail of needless words that are often overused by English speakers. I trust that what we have taken up along the way has fortified our defenses against them and strengthened our resolve to write or speak more clearly and concisely from now on. (November 7, 2005)

2007: The reign of the dreadful clichés – Part I

Over lunch last week, I told a fellow editor that I’d be writing about clichés in my column in The Manila Times and that I’d entitle it “The reign of the dreadful clichés.”

“The word ‘reign’ sounds like a nice touch,” he said, “but I think ‘dreadful clichés’ is a tautology. All clichés are dreadful, aren’t they?”

“Well, not all, and I won’t go as far as to suggest banning them altogether from the language,” I said. “Take the expression ‘to level the playing field,’ for instance. It’s not dreadful when a businessman uses it but once in a statement like this: ‘We certainly need a new tax law to level the playing field in the manufacturing industry.’ As they say, a cliché that works is better than a new expression that doesn’t.”

“Are you saying that it’s OK to use clichés as long as you are selective?”

“No, I don’t mean that. I’m simply aghast over the mindless overuse of clichés in this country these days, particularly ‘at the end of the day’ and ‘at this point in time.’ It has reached epidemic proportions.”

“Well, on that I agree with you 100 percent. For instance, I think one out of every four senators or congressmen overuses ‘at the end of the day’ and ‘at this point in time’ when they talk in session or give media interviews. They seem to think that those two clichés are a mark of wisdom, when in fact they are simply semantic crutches to give them more time to figure out what next to say.”

“I didn’t know the cliché situation in Congress has gotten that bad. You see, I hardly find time to watch ANC’s live coverage of their hearings in aid of legislation. All I get to read are the news reports about the proceedings in the dailies.”

“Yes, the print media actually do the legislators and the reading public a great favor by not quoting those speeches verbatim. But I suppose you have noticed how often they use those same clichés when they guest on TV talk shows or are interviewed live by the networks?”

“Well, yes, but I was thinking that it was probably because some of the talk-show hosts or news anchors are so predisposed to using those same clichés themselves. For instance, there’s this TV talk-show host who habitually prefaces his studio interviews with statements like, ‘Mr. Senator, at this point in time, would you say that the standoff at the Manila Peninsula is an indicator of the country’s political instability?’ Of course, when you set the language and tone of the interview with a cliché like that, it makes the guest inclined to respond in kind with, say, ‘Well, Dicky, at the end of the day, we can say that it’s not, because…”

“Mmm… Perhaps it’s high time the TV network owners issued some edict against the use of those clichés by their talk show and news anchors.”

“What a terrific idea! But I think the TV networks can do this country a lot more good by making that edict also applicable to their live talk-show guests, mature and young alike. I think that to give teeth to that edict, the TV networks should perhaps never again invite guests who have used those clichés more twice in a row in a live show.”

“That seems too draconian in a democracy, my friend!”

“Maybe so, but when it comes to live TV broadcasts, it doesn’t really matter who’s spreading the cliché contagion—network anchor, legislator, student or what not. Every cliché user is a deadly carrier. A few weeks ago, in fact, in a student debating competition on one of the TV networks, a debater actually got away with mouthing no less than 23 ‘at the end of the days’ in his five-minute live rebuttal speech. That’s more than enough to start a cliché pandemic.” (December 15, 2007)

2007: The reign of the dreadful clichés – Part II

Precisely what’s  so  special about “at the end of the day” and “at this point in time” that probably one out of four Philippine legislators and public officials and probably the same ratio of TV talk-show hosts, news anchors, and guests are mouthing them much too often and with such relish these days?

Nothing really. “At the end of the day” is simply a longer, flamboyant way of saying “ultimately,” “in the end,” or “after all,” while “at this point in time” is similarly a longer, flamboyant way of saying “now” and “currently.” And these two adverbial phrases—old-time grammarians call them “ablative absolutes”—aren’t really meant to call attention to themselves. Like such modifiers as “clearly” and “definitely,” they are designed simply to call attention to a point being made by the speaker, so they need to be used very sparingly to avoid irritating the listener or reader.

What’s very disturbing, however, is that many people think that liberally spicing their talk with these expressions is a sign of wisdom, discernment, and sophistication. Little do they know that on the contrary, “at the end of the day” and “at this point in time” have for several years now been condemned as the two most irritating clichés in the English language.

In a survey conducted in 70 countries in 2004 by the London-based Plain English Campaign, in particular, “at the end of the day” ranked first and “at this moment in time” (a variation of “at this point in time”) ranked second among the most hated English clichés worldwide. As the group’s spokesman so aptly observed when the rankings of the most irritating clichés were announced, “Using these terms in daily business is about as professional as wearing a novelty tie or having a wacky ring-tone on your phone. When readers or listeners come across these tired expressions, they start tuning out and completely miss the message—assuming there is one.”

Again, in 2005, in a poll of 150 senior executives all throughout corporate America by the temporary staffing company Accountemps, “at the end of the day” ranked first among the 15 most annoying clichés.

Finally, in 2006, in a poll of 10,000 news sources that included 1,600 American newspapers, the Australian-based database company Factiva found “at the end of the day” at the top of the 55 most overused English clichés. But this is only the tip of the iceberg, to use a cliché, for that poll did not cover the US broadcast media where the overuse of “at the end of the day” is decidedly much more pro¬nounced.

If “at the end of the day” and “at this point in time” have indeed become such dreadful banes to the English language, why is it that they are now enjoying such wide currency in the Philippines? They have become such pernicious semantic crutches for so many public officials, media people, and students, and their dependency level is such that they may no longer be able to speak their minds without overusing those two clichés.

I suspect that not so far back, a highly influential public figure either in government, media, or academe must have triggered this domestic overuse of “at the end of the day” and “at this point in time.” Perhaps he or she must have used these two clichés much too often during a major event that was covered live by all of the local TV networks, thus setting such a wrongheaded example for English-savvy speech for audiences all over the land.

It no longer matters who that culprit was, but there’s no doubt that we are now in the midst of an “at the end of the day” and “at this point in time” pandemic, and the only way to stop it is for all of us to totally retire these damaged semantic goods from our writing and speech—right now. (December 22, 2007)

(Continued in the Reply panel)
« Last Edit: January 06, 2020, 08:41:33 AM by Joe Carillo »

Joe Carillo

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Re: Doing battle with the most irritating phrases in English
« Reply #1 on: September 26, 2010, 12:29:50 PM »
(Continued from above panel)

2007: Postscript to my columns on clichés

I planned to start a new series this week on punctuation but I’m deferring it to give way to interesting feedback from two readers, both US-based, about my columns on dreadful clichés.

Here’s the feedback from Mr. Jun Castorenas:

“On the subject of ‘dreadful’ clichés, I’m curious to find out what you think of these four others: ‘in the final analysis,’ ‘when all is said and done,’ ‘when the smoke finally clears,’ and ‘when the dust finally settles.’ 

“I think I can understand why the clichés you took up in your past two columns [‘at the end of the day’ and ‘at this point in time’] have become—to use your description—‘dreadful.’ Filipinos are great copycats. For most, it’s the next best thing to being ‘in.’ Call it false pride or whatever, but to the great majority, to sound or look impressive even for a few fleeting moments—be it in song, dress, or cliché—does have an uplifting effect.

“So it’s not surprising to hear that everybody is using the same clichés you discussed because, hey, they sounded cool and impressive in their heyday! But like everything else, they get overused and the fad wears out. Still, I wouldn’t consider it ‘dreadful’ to hear others use them because, as in the case of the four clichés I listed above, people feel good about using them. So perhaps you should advise people to intermittently substitute one of these four clichés—and some others that you may know—so they can avoid sounding ‘dreadful.’”

My reply to Jun:

One of these days, Jun, you’ll probably catch me using in my column any one of the four clichés you listed, but you can be sure that you won’t catch me using it more than once, and definitely not again until many, many columns later. I may not be able to entirely avoid using them in my conversations either. Clichés, as I always say, are not bad in themselves. They have the virtue of succinctly delivering messages that otherwise would take so many words to explain. What makes them annoying is their incessant repetition. In the case of “at the end of the day” and “at this point in time,” in particular, I do think that a good many TV news anchors, talk-show hosts, and guests both in the Philippines and abroad have already beaten them to death through dreadful overuse. (December 29, 2007)     

2008: Clichés and bad body English – Part I

My two sons, 21 and 14 years of age, have lately been watching with keen interest the ongoing series of student debates on ANC, “Square Off.” As you may already know, this TV show pits two-person debating teams from various universities and colleges, with the young speakers taking on the roles of their adult counterparts in Congress in debating various highly controversial issues.

I really can’t find fault in the English of most of the young debaters, whom I presume to be among the best and most articulate from their respective schools. Despite the pressures of time and competition, their speeches are generally free of such language scourges as footloose modifiers, mangled idiomatic expressions, subject-verb disagreements, wrong pronoun usage, and frequent misuses of prepositional phrases and prepositional idioms. And on the whole, I think, their English pronunciation and accents are generally beyond reproach as well.

But as my two sons are quick to point out whenever we have the chance to watch those TV debates together, the body English of many of the debaters leave much to be desired, and their overuse of such clichés as “at the end of the day” and “at this point in time” can be so infuriating at times. Often, in fact, my sons would urge me to write about those things in my column in The Manila Times in the hope that the message would somehow reach the debaters.

“Look at how that debater endlessly chops the air with both hands,” my eldest son said one time, a pained look in his face. “Shouldn’t his coach remind him that he’s not in a karate competition?”

“Well, son, that mannerism is part of his body English,” I said, “and I’m afraid that none of my English-usage prescriptions could correct it. Only a knowledgeable public speaking trainer or trusted friend can wean him from it without shattering his self-confidence.”

“But what about this girl who seems to be always sneering at her opponent?” my younger son asked me another time. “Doesn’t she realize it’s bad form to sneer in public, in full view of the TV audience at that?”

“You’re right, but she probably isn’t even aware of it,” I explained. “That’s the problem with TV—it’s a terribly cruel medium. That habitual facial expression of hers probably won’t even be noticed if she was debating onstage in a big school auditorium, but it gets magnified when the TV camera does a medium close-up of her. Somebody has to call her attention to it, though, and she would need a lot of facial practice in front of a mirror to get rid of it.”

“Now look at this guy, dad,” my elder son butted in. “Why does he keep on obnoxiously repeating ‘Ladies and gentlemen’ or ‘Madame Speaker’ in practically every sentence of his speech? He must have used it a dozen times already in three minutes. Isn’t there a debating rule against that?”

“I’m not sure, but habitual expressions like that are actually semantic crutches. When people speak at the speed of light, their brains may not be able to send their next thought to their tongues fast enough. That’s why they need those expressions to fill in the semantic gaps.”

“I see … But what about this other debater, dad? He’s now on his 15th ‘at the end of the day’ and the debate is still far from over. Hearing this cliché many times over takes away the joy in watching these debates. Can’t he and the other speakers just say ‘ultimately’ or ‘after all’? And why don’t the people behind these debates ban that terrible cliché?”

“Patience, my son, patience! Who knows? Without knowing it, some of those people may be habitual users of that dreadful cliché themselves. Anyway, I promise to write about this in my column. Let’s just hope they’d have the chance to read it before the new round of debates next week.” (February 23, 2008)

2008: Clichés and bad body English – Part II

I am sharing with readers this reaction of US-based reader Jun Castor to my column last week:

“Reading your most recent column, I couldn’t help chuckling a wee bit as I imagined the Carillo family collectively gritting their teeth as they fumed over the participants’ uncharacteristic animations and use of  tired clichés in that TV debate you mentioned [ANC’s “Square Off” student debates].

“It seems obvious that if those clichés are widely used [‘at the end of the day’ and ‘at this point in time’], as you seem to imply from your previous discussions of the subject, then everybody must find it appropriate to use them. So, heck, why make a federal case out of it? They’re powerful transitional phrases that some people find very effective in hammering in their points as they punch in their closing statement. In fact, even presidential aspirant Hilary Clinton uses ‘at the end of the day’ quite often in her campaign speeches. 

“If it fits the occasion and your conscience agrees with it, and you’re not breaking any law in the process, then I say ‘wear it,’ ‘show it,’ ‘say it,’ ‘do it,’ or ‘use it’—whatever the case may be. And it’s probably not healthy for your children, especially the 14-year-old one, to let them grow up getting so used to being too critical of trivial matters, especially those that they don’t have any control over. Teaching them the virtue of tolerance can help make them better prepared to deal with the hard realities of life once you turn them loose in the real world.”   

My reply to Jun:

You’re absolutely right about my sons’ consternation about the bad body English and overuse of clichés by some student debaters on ANC’s “Square Off.” Like me, they expect something better from young Filipino speakers who, having been chosen to debate on TV because of their facility with the English language, are being presented as role models for other young people all over the land. My two sons probably couldn’t care less if those debaters were doing karate chops or overusing clichés to death in some obscure campus auditorium or street corner, but on nationwide network TV? We were not only gritting their teeth but indignant as well. Tolerance is great but it must have its limits.  (March 1, 2008)

These essays appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in
The Manila Times between September 24, 2005 and March 1, 2008. © 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: September 26, 2010, 05:04:40 PM by Joe Carillo »