Author Topic: Let’s say goodbye to those irritating English clichés  (Read 18111 times)

Joe Carillo

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Let’s say goodbye to those irritating English clichés
« on: October 30, 2010, 12:27:22 AM »
Do you very often catch yourself peppering your conversations or extemporaneous remarks with the expressions “with all due respect” or “to be completely honest with you”? If so, and if you happen not to know it yet, be aware that these two expressions had ranked third and fourth, respectively, among the most irritating phrases in the English language. This was the finding of a worldwide survey conducted by the London-based Plain English Campaign in 1994 among 5,000 respondents in 70 countries.

Since then, in my English-usage columns and books, I have made it my advocacy to help curb the overuse of irritating English clichés. As part of my campaign, I specifically gave a lowdown on “with all due respect” and “to be honest with you” in an essay that I wrote for The Manila Times at about this time in 2005. I decided to post that essay in this week’s edition of the Forum to give fresh impetus to that campaign.

I trust that after reading the essay below, most everybody will hold his or her tongue in check every time it’s tempted to let loose another “with all due respect” or “to be honest with you.” Frankly, our English will be much better off without the first, and it will sound more honest and straightforward with “frankly” instead of the second.    

With respect to “with all due respect”

It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that “with all due respect” ranked third and “to be (completely) honest (with you)” fourth in a 1994 worldwide survey among the most irritating phrases in the English language.1 These two phrases are obviously battered from severe overuse, and the Plain English Campaign survey of 5,000 respondents in 70 countries simply reflected this fact.

We can get an even clearer picture of this overuse by skimming the written and spoken usage of these two phrases that have made it to the World Wide Web. In a check I made with Google at about this time in 2005, there were 1,720,000 hits for “with all due respect” and 592,000 hits for “to be honest with you” (this dropped to 14,700 hits for usage that adds “completely” to the phrase).2 There is compelling evidence on the Web that lawyers, politicians, bureaucrats, academics, religious leaders, and broadcast talk-show hosts and guests are writing and uttering these two phrases so indiscriminately as to make them downright annoying to their readers or listeners.

In the Philippines, of course, we know very well that “with all due respect” is the preferred prefatory phrase of lawyers and bureaucrats—a disconcerting form of legalese or bureaucratese—when contradicting someone of higher authority or social station or when about to present an offensive statement. Take the following court pleading: “With all due respect (italicization mine), the prosecution submits that the initial presentation of defense evidence in the plunder case may push through on 30 June 2004 notwithstanding the pendency of incidents, if any, before the Honorable Court…” The phrase can grate on the layman’s ears, but as a code of lawyerly manners or politesse, it helps temper the unpleasantness of the typically adversarial language used in court. Also, its use in judicial proceedings has been hallowed by time, so it would be foolhardy to ask lawyers to consider stripping it from their language.

But using “with all due respect” could be very annoying or insulting when the phrase is appropriated by non-lawyers addressing fellow laymen, as in this complaint by a frustrated advocate: “Why is the government not paying attention? With all due respect (italicization mine), surely an economist like yourself can see the potential of such an innovation that could turn the Philippines into a superpower overnight.” Or in this remark by a feminist: “With all due respect (italicization mine), I do not know the level of pain that fathers go through after having his wife and the courts take his children away.” Here, “with all due respect” appears not to serve any useful purpose; in fact, omitting it makes the statement better-sounding and more forceful.

As to the phrase “to be (completely) honest (with you),” prefacing statements with it is often harmless in intimate or private conversations, but it can be very annoying when done publicly by politicians, public officials, and TV or radio talk-show hosts and guests. Consider the following remark by a public official in a TV interview in early 2005: “It’s (the bill’s) a little convoluted. To be honest with you (italicization mine), I could not sufficiently explain it at this point. But what was approved in principle last night is that there will be no pass-on insofar as the household consumers are concerned.” Or this remark by an information-systems sales manager in a newspaper interview: “(The competitor) can do what they want. And we don’t worry about market share. To be honest with you (italicization mine), it doesn’t make any difference to a customer.”

Speakers who habitually use “to be honest with you” obviously don’t realize it, but prefacing a statement with this phrase doesn’t enhance but actually detracts from the credibility of the statement. This is because although unintended, the phrase leads to the sneaking suspicion that the speaker is honest only in that particular instance and is generally dishonest at other times. And qualifying that phrase with “completely” only makes that impression stronger. In contrast, pruning out “to be honest with you” from such statements, or perhaps replacing it with the more concise “frankly,” can make the statements much more pleasant and convincing.  

The Plain English Campaign survey pinpointed 32 other very irritating English phrases, among them “24/7” (for “non-stop”) and such business and academic buzzwords as “address the issue,” “ballpark figure,” and “thinking outside the box,” but we need not discuss them in detail here. They are not that endemic in the Philippines anyway, and taking them up might only encourage the cliché fanciers in our midst to mindlessly spread their use through the broadcast media.3 (October 31, 2005)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, October 31, 2005 issue © 2005 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

1The most irritating phrase as determined by the Plain English Campaign survey in 1994 was, of course, “at the end of the day,” with “at this moment in time” as first runner-up. For the details, click this link to my essay “Doing battle with the most irritating phrases in English” that I posted earlier in the Forum.

2Here, as reported by Google, is an update of the usage incidence of these clichés as of October 28, 2010 vs. the October 2005 figures: “with all due respect,” 3,890,000 hits vs. 1,720,000; “to be honest with you,” 2,210,000 vs. 592,000; and “to be completely honest with you,” 42,000 vs. 902,000. This is a worrisome growth in the usage of these irritating clichés.

3I’ll admit that I was too optimistic at the time that “24/7,” “address the issue,” “ballpark figure,” and “thinking outside the box” won’t attain annoying cliché status in the Philippines. However, we all know how indiscriminately these expressions have since been bandied about in academe, the corporate world, the mass media, and, of course, the web. We really need to firm up our individual resolve not to abet the use of these irritating clichés.

« Last Edit: July 31, 2014, 05:37:04 PM by Joe Carillo »