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Cataloguing My Tics

May 25th, 2007 · 18 Comments

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.

Tags: Language and Literature



18 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Withnail // May 25, 2007 at 10:38 pm

    Since 2004 you’ve used the word “farrago” eight times. That’s eight times more than anyone I’ve ever met and/or read. You’ve been warned!

  • 2 Withnail // May 25, 2007 at 10:48 pm

    Ooh, I got a good one this time: the phrase “I’m inclined” or “I’d be inclined” or “I’m hardly inclined”, etc.

    Do a search and you’ll be inclined to cringe.

    This is fun!

  • 3 JP // May 25, 2007 at 11:14 pm

    I don’t know about particular tics, but overall one does find in Julian Sanchez a kind of philosopher-like wordiness and analytical overprecision. But then, overprecision is also known as precision, and is often a welcome contrast to the unclarity found elsewhere.

  • 4 SF // May 26, 2007 at 12:02 am

    I rather like your overqualification! It makes your writing somewhat less combative.

  • 5 Benquo // May 26, 2007 at 12:19 am

    I do that “I’m confused” thing a lot in speech, but I’ve found that it’s actually a more helpful way to put things than “you’re wrong,” as the latter is not an invitation to discourse among equals the way the former is.

    I’ve also found that my mental attitude has improved to better match my words. Perhaps some of these tics are worth retaining?

  • 6 Laure // May 26, 2007 at 12:28 am

    Your superhero name is Prolix- you can have two xes if you want (I’m fond of that construction myself).

    Frankly, though it’s good to be self-aware, I don’t think anyone can really complain about your tics; all of them are ultimately endearing.

  • 7 Anonymous // May 26, 2007 at 12:53 am


  • 8 Christopher M // May 26, 2007 at 2:05 am

    The one I noticed when I went to law school is beginning sentences with the word “so” in a very specific way. The context is: Someone makes a point or asks a question; the person responding (often a professor) looks thoughtful and begins, on a high pitch-accent, “So…” As in, “So…there are several ways we could theorize this problem.” There are several sentence-initial “so’s” (with varying intonation) but this one specifically signals that the respondent is sort of mentally backing away from the actual question or point, so as to approach it from another angle.

    Anyway it’s endemic among young profs at Harvard; presumably elsewhere too but I can’t actually say.

  • 9 Dave W. // May 26, 2007 at 12:42 pm

    You use too many words generally, reflecting too many thoughts, some of which just aren’t that crucial. Your nuggets are real good, but sometimes I don’t take the time to mine them out.

    Recent example: Your recent evolution post that quoted Gilder got cross-cited on the Henley blog recently, so I did a good hard read of it. You had some long winded intro to a quoted Guardian/Gilder quoted paragraph. Then after the quote, you commented that evolutionists would find the paragraph “true but not worth saying.” then you launched into some nice commentary on the commentary, adding some nice original thoughts or spin or whatever. Here is how I would have written that:

    Recent Guardian commentary on evolution:

    [quoted para]

    This is equally true of the weather . . . [rest of what you said]

  • 10 chuckles // May 26, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    I get a kick out of it whenever you use the word “otiose.”

  • 11 Robin Goodfellow // May 26, 2007 at 3:08 pm

    You could avoid using “really” so much. It doesn’t add emphasis. Such as above, I don’t think saying you “really mean to use” a specific language tic is any more forceful than saying that you “mean to use” them. Really is really a word that can often be inserted really almost anywhere without really affecting what you really mean to say. It’s overuse implies that you are nominally unserious.

    Also, I think the “I think…” construction is valid and useful, when used appropriately. Consider the contrast between saying “I think cheese does not taste good” vs. saying “cheese does not taste good”. These constructions have dramatically different impacts on the nature and evolution of debate and argument. By saying “X is true” rather than “I believe X” you can make rational, civilized argument more difficult because the implication of someone believing otherwise is that they are a liar, an idiot, or a fraud, rather than merely mistaken about facts or logic. Moreover, stating “X is true” is passive and impersonal, it just is, and the statement might as well have been emitted by a teletype as by you: you may believe it because it’s impossible to believe otherwise or because you’ve been brainwashed or some other reason, but it almost doesn’t matter why you believe it. In contrast, stating “I believe X” is much more personal, and implies that there is a thinking individual behind the statement with thoughts and feelings and that this conclusion is supported by certain facts and rationale. Again, the impact that this has on debate is dramatic, and I would much prefer to enter into a discussion with people who have thoughts and beliefs (however strongly held) than people who simply emit immutable facts.

  • 12 Blar // May 26, 2007 at 6:27 pm

    In his autobiography, Ben Franklin recommended overqualifying with phrases like “I think” and “if I am not mistaken,” largely for the kinds of reasons that SF & Robin mention.

  • 13 Scott Wood // May 27, 2007 at 8:11 am

    I usually use the phrase “I think” and its relatives as a way of expressing a degree of humility in my statements. Of course it can be overdone, but I don’t usually find it otiose.

  • 14 CGHill // May 27, 2007 at 12:04 pm

    The frightening aspect of this experiment, for me, was how difficult it was to pare the list down to ten.

  • 15 Dave // May 27, 2007 at 12:18 pm

    Oh, I don’t know, I just discovered your web site and thought your ideas had some sparkle. I don’t know about this self examination. I am a big Orwell fan, which to me means one has a big Bull S—t antenna. I’m drifting over here from Catallarchy which has deteriorated into some sort of interpersonal smart guy contest between certain persons who have too much spare time, I’m guessing because they are wheelchair bound .
    Oh, you are philosophy student. Well I hope you are not one of those who assume that everyone is who is interested in your opinions is conversant with the latest philo–talk philosophy jargon. This stuff should be confined to academic journals so those who use these terms without defining them in common English language are committing major Orwellian sins. The way some people use these soon to be obsolete labels only exposes their neophyte status.

  • 16 Rue Des Quatre Vents // May 27, 2007 at 8:29 pm

    You should learn what it means for something to be in apposition. The use of “of course” or “obviously” that you refer to are adverbial. Apposition refers (mainly) to nouns and semantic clarification. So one writing tic you might want to improve on is your knowledge of grammar. Good luck!

  • 17 mobile // May 30, 2007 at 5:12 pm

    Whenever I see “epistimological” in a Hit ‘n Run post, there’s at least a 95% chance that the author is Julian Sanchez. When I see it on other blogs, there’s a 50% chance that it’s from Will Wilkinson.

  • 18 Franklin Harris // Jun 21, 2007 at 8:10 pm

    Oh, god only knows how many such tics I have. “God only knows” being one of them, probably. I suspect (there’s another one) it’s because the bulk of my professional writing for the past decade has been a chatty pop-culture newspaper column, which reads only as slightly more formal that my blogs.