More clichéd than previously thought

July 24, 2013

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 “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—

The problem with banning words

April 26, 2012

I recently wrote about linguistic inflation for Macmillan Dictionary Blog, asking self-referentially if the phenomenon was ‘insanely awesome’. John Petrie, in a comment, told me about a ‘Campaign to Stamp Out Awesome.’ The person responsible calls it a ‘nauseatingly ubiquitous (and by now, completely meaningless) superlative’. He sells stickers with this message.

Inflation is a form of semantic change. This is a very common process, yet critics tend to be strangely selective about the particular changes that bother them. It doesn’t seem to matter to awesome-haters that many people find the weakened sense of the word natural and useful, or that to call it ‘completely meaningless’ is absurdly hyperbolic – something to which another pedant might well object. Read the rest of this entry »

The ongoing fuss over ‘ongoing’

July 28, 2011

“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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Reporting on sporting clichés and metaphors

April 4, 2011

Since my last report on activities at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve written several articles there about words and language. Time for a quick recap. March was the website’s month of sporting English. Coming from a family of sports enthusiasts (and having played a lot myself), I enjoyed exploring various aspects of sporting lingo.

In Be a sport about clichés, I take issue with Edwin Newman’s lament that there is “no way to measure the destructive effect of sports broadcasting on ordinary American English”, and I offer a partial defence of clichés and sports commentary in general:

When the umpteenth soccer pundit (typically a former player) tells us it’s a “game of two halves”, we might sigh wearily, grudgingly acknowledge the validity of this tired truism, or idly wish there were a fresh way of saying it, or more ways of not saying it at all.

Perhaps even more reviled is “at the end of the day”. This throwaway idiom is also popular with politicians – Irish ones, anyway – and means something between “ultimately” and nothing whatsoever. Its versatility and existential vagueness might be partly why it’s so commonly used: novelist Kazuo Ishiguro has defended it as “very deep” and “very close to reflecting the human condition”.

Next up is an article about the word goal: I briefly explore its origins and semantics, and I recall my childhood confusion over the meaning of hat trick, born of my inability to sensibly interpret a frame of the comic strip Billy’s Boots.

Stepping temporarily into a different field of play, I address the matter of linguistic register and “code switching”, especially in the interactions of students and professors. Is it appropriate, I wonder, to begin a semi-formal email with the words “Hey Professor”?

There’s a lot going on in and around a word. This is shown clearly in the image below, which is a slide from Michael Rundell’s presentation on language technology and lexicography:

Using the word word as an example, in the post In a word I take a closer look at the fuzzy edges and multiple possibilities of a word, showing how in many cases

word doesn’t mean “a word” so much as a number of words that convey a certain kind of message. This is an example of metonymy, where a word or phrase is used to refer to something with which it has a close semantic relationship – to transfer a concept to an adjacent domain, as linguist Guy Deutscher put it (metaphor involves transfer to a distant domain). Along the same lines, we sometimes use tongue as a metonym for speech and language.

These sorts of metaphors are so commonplace, they are likely to pass us by unless we foster the habit of noticing them. On Twitter recently I posted a link to an article on metaphor by Diane Nicholls, called “What we talk about when we talk about words and language”. It generated a lot of interest, and it’s easy to see why.

Back to the sporting series. Blunt as a bag of wet mice is my post about the very original commentating style of Ray Hudson. Such is his passion for soccer, he often forgoes balance and calm for an excited flood of superlatives and strange similes, producing such quotable gems as “happy as a banjo player” and “like a big werewolf with a plate of liver in front of it”.

Appropriately enough, April is the month of metaphorical English at Macmillan. Sports and metaphors make a good team, but why do some sports generate more metaphors than others? Does it have more to do with class than popularity? This page conveniently gathers articles and resources on metaphor; I’ll be adding to it over the next few weeks, and all my archived articles are available here.