The ongoing fuss over ‘ongoing’

“avoid this ugly adjective” – The Times Style Guide

A journalist friend on Twitter asked my opinion of ongoing. He said he had been asked to ban it in a style guide, and that he didn’t see why. I said I had nothing against it, and that banning it struck me as excessive and unhelpful. Although I sometimes find constructions like ongoing situation and ongoing issue vague or euphemistic, I see no point in prohibiting them outright.

Indeed, there are times when the adjective lends a helpful distinction. Take ongoing treatment in the context of medical care: it immediately conveys the prolonged or recurring nature of the care, as distinct from one-off treatment. You could say continuing treatment instead, but why be obliged to avoid a particular modifier if there’s nothing inherently wrong with it (which there isn’t)?

I think there are many occasions when ongoing can profitably be deleted, or perhaps replaced with current, continual, continuing, developing, prolonged, persistent, sustained, in progress, under way, or some such phrase – if only for variation. It is something of a journalistic crutch word, as Oliver described it. But this is no reason to remove it from the realm of possibility.

A day after this discussion, the Guardian style guide tweeted:

Can we agree to delete the word ‘ongoing’ whenever & wherever we see it? The writing will be improved & the world will be a happier place.

A bit harsh, I thought, and checked the Guardian website to see if the word appeared there often. It did: 20,765 times (more by the time you click). Including many headlines. I let @guardianstyle know about this, and they found it “shameful”.

Their response was partly tongue-in-cheek, but there’s really no shame in ongoing. A similar search on the Irish Times website yielded 22,187 hits. Even allowing for repeats, these figures strongly indicate that the word is not only well established but also useful. Browsing examples in newspapers and corpora, the usages seem to me to vary from perfectly reasonable to utterly (but harmlessly) superfluous.

A Google Ngram charts ongoing’s recent rise to prominence. The trend happened slightly earlier in the U.S. than in the UK (about which see the final quote below). Ernest Gowers, a close observer of the language, called it a vogue word back in the 1950s, and people have been griping about it ever since. Here are a few examples.

A Glasgow-based commenter on the BBC website asks,

When did the word “ongoing” become such common currency that it crops up in just about every news report? What happened to “continuing”?

Meet Peter, who is “unstoppably mid-rant”

and bearing the expression of a man cheesed to the back teeth with language; he is cocking a snook at the word “ongoing”, regarding it as an Americanism. ‘Why can’t people say “continuing”, as they should?’ he asks loftily.

This editor says:

I have an ongoing argument with my father about the word “ongoing” which he refuses to recognize as a word.

A thread called “Uses of the Language that Hack Me Off” includes the following:

‘Ongoing’ Instead of ‘Continuing’
The main reason I hate this is because usually the only people who use the word ‘ongoing’ are tossers of the highest order. But really, why use an awkword [sic] contraction when there’s a perfectly good verb all ready to use?

So the problem’s not so much the word as the fact that the peever thinks a lot of people are tossers? Colour me unsurprised. (And for the record: ongoing is not a contraction.) Don Watson includes ongoing in his Dictionary of Weasel Words, quoting former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan:

There are ongoing security challenges that we face and [Iraqi] Prime Minister Allawi is determined to address those ongoing security threats

When the word is used and repeated this way, we can see how it might serve to justify a certain attitude or course of action: unpopular measures might be made more palatable if threats are perceived to be ongoing and stressed as such. What’s meant is that the threats are sustained or recurring, but calling them ongoing renders them both plausible and manageable. Clichés beget comfort.

Robert Burchfield, in the third edition of Fowler’s usage dictionary, says the adjective was first recorded in 1877 and is found in many acceptable collocations, but that ongoing situation is not among them: it “signals a person’s linguistic impoverishment”. Again, I think this is too severe – and very judgemental – but it’s important to be aware that the phrase is capable of provoking considerable annoyance and distaste even in reasonable people.

The objections to ongoing may be especially pointed in British English. There’s no mention of it in Jack Lynch’s guide or in my 1998 edition of Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage; the Columbia Guide to Standard American English calls it “Standard”, while noting that some commentators consider it overused. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage lists several who air their grievances about its overuse, and points out that

A new (or newly common) word that acquires great popularity is almost certain to be derided as a vogue word by those who watch over the language, especially when an older word, such as continuing, is available to be used in the same contexts. . . . And it may be, in addition, that the particularly strong feelings against ongoing among the British have something to do with its first having come into widespread use in the U.S.

But MWDEU sees “no compelling reason to avoid it”, and I’m compelled to agree. I asked about the word on Twitter and was glad to see that almost everyone found the word unobjectionable – though some noted its overuse, especially in management jargon. I also learned that it’s part of a fixed phrase in sociophonetics: ongoing sound change.

The idea of banning words and phrases crops up repeatedly. While certainly it’s worthwhile to draw attention to clichés, vogue words and otherwise potentially troublesome expressions, I don’t think banning them is a sensible solution. At the very least, it inculcates a proscriptive and censorial attitude, which is unconstructive. And what happens when a word you need is a word you’ve banned?

What do you think: Is there a problem with ongoing, or is people’s problem with ongoing the ongoing problem?

.

Updates: John E. McIntyre has written a follow-up to this post, explaining his distaste for ongoing (he calls it cablese, “the journalistic indulgence in words like downplay and upcoming“) but finding that it has become relatively innocuous over the years. Mr McIntyre adds some pertinent thoughts on the tension brought about by new words and vogue phrases, a tension that is “the dynamic by which the language evolves”.

At Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum reports amusingly on the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s “ongoing lexical fascism“. He recently learned that the Chronicle does not allow ongoing to appear in its texts — except when it does. Pullum finds it “funny how these irrational word-rage objections to specific coinages become unquestionable long-term policy”, and notes that “sensible copy-editing experts have no problem with ongoing.”

Note: This post also appears on the Visual Thesaurus.

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22 Responses to The ongoing fuss over ‘ongoing’

  1. The OED has an 1851 citation for the adjective. The word is first recorded as a noun in 1637 with the meaning ‘the action of proceeding, developing or happening; continuing or continuous movement or action’. The Recency Ilusion strikes again.

  2. Jonathon says:

    I agree that there’s nothing wrong with the word per se; the only problem is its overuse among managers and bureaucrats, whose language is frequently looked down on.

  3. Marc Leavitt says:

    Stan:
    In my ongoing career as a reporter and editor, over the course of more than 30 years, I occasionally saw, or used the word in copy. I think it falls under the category of “synonyms.” In the land of the peevologist, the polysynonymic man is king.

  4. Stan says:

    Barrie: Thank you. I don’t have convenient access to the full OED, so I presume that’s an antedating of the 1877 entry Burchfield mentioned.

    Jonathon: That’s a fair summary. Those poor innovative bureaucrats!

    Marc: This line of yours would make an excellent slogan: ‘In the land of the peevologist, the polysynonymic man is king.’ It flies directly in the face of the One Right Way fallacy.

  5. I use OED Online, Stan.

    If I may go off at a tangent, have you noticed how selective the peevers are in their peeves? No one seems to be bothered any longer about the use of ‘due to’, where earlier huffers and puffers would have claimed, quite unjustifiably, that ‘owing to’ or ‘because of’ should be used. Similarly, Mr Manifesto, he of ‘Uses of the Language that Hack Me Off’, is happy to write ‘The main reason I hate this is because . . .’ If he’s the arch-peever he clearly wants to be, why doesn’t he write ‘The main reason I hate this is that . . .’? After all, in ‘The Penguin Guide to Plain English’, Harry Blamires, whom Mr Manifesto might be presumed to admire, describes ‘The reason is . . .’ followed by ‘because . . .’ as ‘overkill’. Well, no longer, Harry. It’s now the normal construction. My goodness, even people like Mr Manifesto use it, so it must be OK.

  6. James Brown says:

    Hey Stan,
    I respect the argument, and see the merit in it, but I’m with you. “Banning” the word “ongoing” is crazy. Language evolves, sometimes for the better, sometimes not; sometimes for good reason, sometimes not; but we’re on a slippery slope, as they say, if we’re foolish enough to turn our judgements into some kind of “language law.” At the university where I work certain words are already tacitly banned, or frowned upon, for various political reasons, and I can imagine politics carrying over to a discussion of this sort. That’s dangerous ground.

  7. I’ve blogged about this myself. As an editor, I almost always delete it because it adds no meaning and occasionally is used to obscure meaning. Anyone who cares about clarity of expression should care about superfluous words. “Ongoing” almost always leads to weak, wordy sentences. Very occasionally, I will replace it with “continuing”, but it’s extremely rare that even this is necessary.

    I don’t object to “due to”, but I very much object to its misuse.

    Both of these constructions are signs of timid writing, used to create sentences where active verbs or the subjects of those verbs are omitted. So, “Investigations are ongoing” frees the writer from saying who is investigating. “Due to it being” removes an active verb.

  8. Stan says:

    Barrie: Tangents are welcome, within reason! Yes, I have noticed this. I think peevers have to be selective, because once a person starts finding this or that usage unacceptable for personal reasons, it’s impossible to be fully consistent. Due to is a usage to which I pay heed when editing for certain audiences, but the once-popular ‘rule’ about it does seem to have been mostly abandoned. Funny how that happens, bit by bit.

    James: That slippery slope you observe is very prevalent and enticing. The tendency to extend our personal preferences beyond their natural limits is a common one, and it leads to a lot of pointless disputation. Even when the banning of a word is done in a restricted context, such as in a style guide, it gives me pause – unless the word is clearly problematic, such as for reasons of taboo or excessive informality. Writers can be discouraged from using inappropriate expressions and still given licence to make up their own minds.

  9. James Brown says:

    Thanks, Stan, for the insightful response. This is a little off-topic, but it may fall into the category of the taboo of excessive informality, and is controversial, and for good, sound reason. To the point, sometimes I feel inclined to use a more descriptive word in lieu of a more personally and politically sensitive one. As a writer trying his best to create a visual image, I see merit in the word “crippled” as opposed to the generalization of “physically handicapped.” My step-brother contracted polio when he was a child, and, yes, he is “physically handicapped,” but the horror of this disease is more aptly described by its debilitation, and that debilitation, visually, is best captured by the word “crippled.” For that’s what it did to him. Again, as a writer, I want to hit home, and I can’t do it with abstract language that seeks to soften.

    The same could be said of the term “bipolar” to describe a mental illness once known as “manic-depression.” I’ve been diagnosed by three shrinks as “bipolar,” but I’ve always felt the doctors were hiding behind euphemistic language. The nature of the illness is best described by its symptoms, where you are manic for a phase, full of energy and life, and then, when that phase reaches its cycle, you “crash,” much like an addict coming off a drug, and enter a state of depression that might last days or longer. So “manic-depression” is far more accurate than the broadly based “bipolar.” I guess what I’m saying here is that I want to be truthful, call a thing for what it is, even at the risk of offending. And as this relates to the conversation (I guess I’m really reaching), it falls far from style guides, but still, I hope, comes under the heading of my fear of “banned language.” Maybe I’ve just created a new topic?

  10. [...] prolific Mr. Carey also had posts on the expression open kimono, and the ongoing fuss over the word ongoing, as was Lynneguist, aka Lynne Murphy, with a guest post at Macmillan Dictionary blog on how [...]

  11. If I have an objection to “ongoing”, it’s very weak indeed, and derives mainly from the word’s appearing to be a default adjective. It would be a good idea, I think, for writers to consider using another word, or indeed whether an adjective is necessary at all (an expression like “the ongoing war in Iraq”, for instance, which produces over 700,000 hits on Google, is often a clear case of superfluity); however, if they choose to use “ongoing” I’m not going to have a fit about it.

  12. Stan says:

    Patrick: Thank you for visiting, and sorry about the delayed reply: your comment went directly into my spam folder. Although I agree that ongoing can lead to weak, wordy sentences, unlike you I don’t think it “almost always” does. Nor does it imply timidity, though it is quite often unnecessary. Some of the examples you cite on your blog are sloppy indeed, but others – like ongoing medical treatment – I find fine for reasons I’ve explained above. English is full of superfluous words that generally do no damage (though in formal contexts might be best omitted). Synonyms diverge and can provide us with usefully distinct near-synonyms; perhaps this will happen with ongoing and continuing.

    James: Thanks for a very thought-provoking comment. I might have to address this properly in a dedicated post, but a few thoughts here will have to do for now. It’s a difficult problem, and a writer’s choices will inevitably beget compromise or contention. A standard expression for one generation is taboo in the next. It can happen in discrete stages, e.g., the disabled to disabled people to people with disability or differently abled. I try to restrict my language to the more politically correct terms, but then I don’t write much about disability. I have edited legal and social science texts on the subject, and these tend to use very sensitive terminology. Fiction, narrative non-fiction, memoir and so on are different, but how and when is not a matter about which I feel at all authoritative. Certainly the rules are different, and rightly so, for people talking or writing about their own experiences, and this can be extended to people they know – friends and family – or characters they inhabit. Since words like crippled can hurt, it’s important that one’s intentions are informed, compassionate, and carefully considered; yours clearly are. If there’s an editorial impasse, maybe another route is possible: a new usage to describe the condition? For what it’s worth, I’ve always found bipolar euphemistic and colourless too.

    Terrence: “The ongoing war in Iraq” appears to have become a set phrase among certain news reporters. I agree that ongoing is often superfluous in the phrase, but you could also argue that it helps emphasise the war’s longevity without the need to add a clause to that effect. At least maybe that was the intention on one or two occasions! With overuse, though, it becomes meaningless and tiresome, and the salience of ongoing in the phrase (if it ever had any) fades into cliché.

  13. Interesting stuff. I hope the conflict does not escalate!

  14. James Brown says:

    Hey Stan,
    Thanks for responding to my off-topic response. I, too, agree that language is powerful and must be used carefully, so as not to unnecessarily hurt or offend. Now back to the “ongoing” discussion, where, once again, the sentence could get by just fine without the word.

  15. Stan says:

    Jams: You and me both! But I suspect the word will raise hackles for a while yet.

    James: This ongoing discussion makes me think of the language-as-a-virus metaphor. It applies, in a sense, to words and phrases too, words like ongoing that become somehow contagious in use, spreading throughout a person’s speech and then hopping to others exposed to it.

    Epidemiolinguistics, anyone?

  16. [...] “the ongoing war in Iraq”,  quoted figure: over 700,000, current figure: “269,000 results”, actual results: 440. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]

  17. Stephen says:

    Part of the British fuss is likely due to a long-running, but not now ongoing, section in Private Eye called “Ongoing Situations”.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_regular_mini-sections_in_Private_Eye#Ongoing_situations

    I remember in 1977 having a teacher with a tedious form of management speak. I left copies of Private Eye’s section on his desk. It didn’t seem to help.

  18. Stan says:

    Stephen: Ah, I didn’t know about that section, or I had forgotten it; I was never a regular Private Eye reader.

    Some habits of speech don’t change easily.

  19. [...] year, I wrote about the word ongoing when a journalist I know on Twitter said he was asked to ban it in a style guide. The Guardian’s [...]

  20. […] swift sweeps into the general lexicon rarely go unpunished (ongoing, I’m looking at you). A few minutes of Googling delivered reams of proactive-hatred, of which the […]

  21. Every overused word becomes sore to the ear.

  22. […] Ongoing is not a word you need to “run a mile from”, though it was probably superfluous in some of the Guardian website’s tens of thousands of cases. […]

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