book - usage and abusage

Although I have reached an age when I am expected - and sometimes encouraged - to be grumpy I do not consider myself to be a particularly prickly sort of man. I don’t mind too much if people push in front of me at the bus stop and if others pay small fortunes for jeans with pre-torn knees, ride bicycles in the rain with no mudguards (how ridiculous is that?) and walk up the street with their noses stuck into smart phones then so be it. It is a small world and we need to share it between us. Mr Easy-going, that’s me. I can live quite amicably with radio presenters like Steve Wright who use the word ‘factoid’ to describe something as a fact when actually it means the direct opposite…

Factoid (ˈfæktɔɪd) n

a piece of unreliable information believed to be true because of the way it is presented or repeated in print. [C20 (coined by Norman Mailer): from fact + -oid]

Collins English Dictionary -12th Edition 2014

…I can also forgive those sad souls in the car behind who insist on honking in the nanosecond between the traffic light turning green and me beginning to move off. My absolution even extends to people who leave messages on my answer phone asking me to call them back but then leave their phone number just once - at warp speed 4.5

Warp Speed 4.5

“To Neptune and back (from Earth) in six minutes”.

Star Trek - Episode ‘Broken Bow’ 16th Jan 2013

But if there is one thing that drives me completely insane it is politicians and their cronies repeating endlessly the word ‘clear’ as in… “Let me make this clear” and “It is perfectly clear” and “I cannot put this more clearly.” There was a politician on the radio earlier this week banging on about the forthcoming EU referendum. In three minutes this wittering wordsmith managed to repeat the word ‘clear’ six times and in many guises. Perhaps he was hoping that by repeating the phrase the topic under discussion would miraculously become clear… which of course it didn’t!

Now be warned. My acquaintance with English Grammar only extends to “English Language - O Level 1960” so what follows could be completely wrong…

I first thought that “Let me make this clear” and all its brothers and sisters fell into the grammatical category “Filler Word” - an apparently meaningless phrase, word or sound that marks a pause or hesitation in speech.

Barbara A Fox

To confirm the notion I first consulted ‘Fillers, Pauses and Placeholders’ by Barbara A. Fox, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Colorado. She notes that “although Filler words may have fairly minimal lexical content, they can play a strategic syntactic role in an unfolding utterance” which didn’t help at all. Clearly!

Ronald Reagan

I did discover however that common examples of ‘filler words’ include um, uh, er, ah, like, okay, right, you know and ‘know what I mean?’ and that famous and fervent frequenters of ‘fillers’ include Ronald Reagan who was known for beginning his answers to questions with “Well…” and President Barack Obama, known for beginning statements with “Look…”

eric partridge

A friend of mine, a bit of a grammatical whiz kid, suggested that the colony of ‘clears’ and ‘clearlys’ were not ‘fillers’ but ‘clichés’ - a.k.a outworn expressions or ideas that have lost their originality or force through overuse. To make sure I checked in the 1947 publication “Usage and Abusage” by New Zealand lexicographer Eric Partridge. He dismisses clichés as ‘outworn commonplaces’ - ‘a coin so battered by use as to be defaced’ finishing up with ‘their use is an insult to the intelligence of their auditor or audience, reader or public’, which clearly sums up what I feel about ‘clearly’…which isn’t much.

Guardian Stylebook

The Guardian Style Book doesn’t think much of clichés either dismissing them as… Overused words and phrases to be avoided, including:- ahead of, back burner, boost (massive or otherwise), bouquets and brickbats, but hey… controversial, count’em, drop-dead gorgeous, elephant in the room, famous, fit for purpose, flagship, landmark, key, major, massive, meanwhile, ongoing, politically correct, raft of measures, special, stepchange, to die for, upcoming, upsurge… I note that there is not a single mention of any of the many mutations of ‘clear’ etc etc…

In 2004 the Plain English Campaign conducted a survey to find the most irritating clichés in the language. At the end of the day the No. 1 irritant was “At the end of the day”, followed by (in order of annoyance):

  1. At this moment in time
  2. Like, With all due respect
  3. To be perfectly honest with you
  4. Touch base
  5. I hear what you’re saying
  6. Going forward
  7. Absolutely
  8. Blue sky thinking

Again no sign of ‘let me make this clear’… which suggests that this cliché - the latest aberration to emerge from the spin doctor and speech writer surgery - hasn’t been around long enough to register in the public consciousness… but it will!

While we wait we should perhaps follow George Orwell’s advice: ‘Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.’

– from Martyn Day