Orwell’s classic “Politics and the English Language” was an assault on “ready-made phrases,” those clichés and dead metaphors that spring so readily to the writer’s mind, sparing him (and his readers) the trouble of thinking. But it occurs to me that in addition to the phrases at large in the written culture of the society, there are individual prose-crutches particualr writers tend to fall back on again and again. One has to be careful here, because you don’t want to lump ordinary elements of someones personal style and authorial voice into this category—those are good things to have—but rather focus on those little tics that breed laziness by substituting for words or constructions that might be fresher or more apt for the particular piece.
Of course, one’s own tics are usually more obvious to others, so I thought I’d impose on you guys: What are the words, phrases, and constructions any of you who’ve been reading for a while notice recurring? Once I know what these are, I can make sure I really mean to use them when they pop up on my screen.
Here are a few I’m aware of just to give a sense of what mean:
- I overuse the word “precisely,” often in the locutions “precisely wrong” or “precisely because.” I’ll often do this in the course of saying that some argument commonly taken to show that X is really evidence for not-X, or alternatively that something being passed over quickly as ancillary is actually central or especially problematic.
- I overqualify: “rather,” “relatively,” “seems,” “I think,” “somewhat,” “in my view,” and so on. Often it’s unnecessary, and “I think” is basically always redundant on my opinion blog unless I’m specifically saying something about the fact of my holding a certain view or its contrast with someone else’s opinion.
- Probably as a holdover from being a philosophy student, I’ll often refer to something “being the case” or talking about what it would be like if something “were the case” when the phrase (like “the fact that”) could be dropped entirely without affecting my meaning or introducing any unclarity.
- I tend to stick in an appositive “of course” or “obviously” whenever I’m making an elementary point. I think I do this because we’ve all had the experience of being in a group conversation when someone chimes in with an observation that they clearly think is some kind of insight, but which everyone else had been taking for granted, provoking a mental chorus of: “Yeah, no shit. Moron.” So I’m afraid that unless I add the qualifier, you might conclude I’m not ever so terribly clever after all.
- I’ll write that something is “puzzling” or “unclear”—as in the construction “it’s not clear why we should think that X”—when I really just mean it’s wrong. I’m not actually confused, I just think the argument is dumb. Sometimes, depending on the context, this is a kind of mild ironic understatement; other times it’s genuinely used to softpedal my disagreement, either because I want to be polite to whomever I’m disagreeing with, because I want to seem especially reasonable and objective, or because I’m leaving myself some wiggle-room just in case there does turn out to be a good argument that I really have missed.
OK, that’s five off the top of my head. Others? Be brutal. Not that you need any encouragement. And if any of my blogospheric confrères want to try out my little exercise, shoot me a link—if a number of people bite, I’ll do a roundup in a couple days.