More clichéd than previously thought

A lesser known cliché in journalism, especially science reporting, is the construction than previously thought. It doesn’t always take that precise form – sometimes it’s than originally thought, or than previously believed, or than scientists/anyone previously thought, or just than thought – but that’s the general structure, and it. is. ubiquitous.

Search for site:sciencedaily.com “previously thought” on Google, or try other news websites in the site: slot, and you’ll see what a journalistic crutch it is. I remember grumbling about it on Twitter once and then seeing it in the next two articles I read.

I’ve also mentioned it on this blog, in a comment a few years ago, where I described it as a meaningless and hackneyed device that may be meant to add novelty and excitement to a story, but doesn’t; instead, it implies that no scientist has any imagination whatsoever.

The number of times I’ve read than previously thought and thought, Actually, that’s not a surprise at all, or No, I’ve had that very thought before – well, it’s probably even more than previously thought.

But there is an upside. In its most elliptical form, than thought, it can generate amusing semantic ambiguities, as in this recent example from Discovery News (via @brandalisms): “Death Happens More Slowly Than Thought”, to which one might reasonably reply: It depends on the thought. (Cf. “Human genome far more active than thought”.)

Discovery crash blossom headline - death happens more slowly than thought

Yes, it’s a crash blossom (i.e., a headline with garden-path ambiguity), a mild one, but the first I’ve written about in a while. I guess the lesson is: When life hands you clichés, make crash blossoms (or other linguistic fun). Not always possible, of course, but maybe more often than prev—

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8 Responses to More clichéd than previously thought

  1. karmicangel says:

    I will never do that to you [feverishly control-f's and looks for instances of such bad cliche] Stan.

  2. Warsaw Will says:

    It may be hackneyed but I’m slightly puzzled as to why you think it is meaningless. Let’s say a new set of figures are released showing that global warming is happening faster than previous information had suggested, surely the natural headline would be ‘Global warming happening faster than previously thought’. How else could you put it in so few words?

  3. Stan says:

    karmicangel: I’m relieved to hear it.

    Will: It’s not always meaningless (I toyed with omitting that word when copy-and-pasting my comment). In your example it works OK because global warming is so well studied that there is near-total agreement among scientists as to its rate. But in many other contexts the phrase than previously thought implies a consensus in the scientific community that doesn’t exist or is assumed for the sake of a readymade story formula.

  4. Yvonne says:

    I think the scientific community may itself be responsible for overspinning aha moments. Signed: Defensive Journalist

    • Stan says:

      Yvonne: Yes, sometimes it is, but I don’t think it’s to blame for the than previously thought cliché, which is the itch I needed to scratch this morning.

  5. […] Stan Carey opined on the “the” abbreviation. At Merriam-Webster, Stan examined those thingamajigs, placeholder terms, and on his own blog reported on the journalistic cliche, than previously thought. […]

  6. Shecky says:

    On the other hand, there’s a reason clichés *become* clichés, which means there’s a strong thread of widely observed truth in the concept. Perhaps not in particular circumstances and perhaps not when the person speaking or writing isn’t using the phrase precisely, but the phrase is not problematic in and of itself.

    • Stan says:

      Shecky: Sometimes that’s the case, and sometimes it’s just a truth-independent phrase that spreads throughout a community. The phrase than previously thought isn’t inherently problematic, but I (mildly) protest its overuse.

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