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September 14, 2010

Words We Ostensibly, Potentially, Just Maybe Totally Use Too Often

My fellow 7D writer Kevin J. Kelley just sent me a link to a great New York Times blog called Words We Love Too Much that critiques the paper's language use. The overused word of the day is "eponymous." Writers here know how I, as an editor, feel about that one.

Then Kevin suggested that, being a word nerd and a grammar fascist (my terms, not his), I try Blurting something similar. Since I just yesterday lectured someone on the use of "begging the question", I couldn't resist.

Language develops organically, like a garden, and in this garden there are some weeds that inexplicably grow very big. I'm talking about words people overuse without knowing why.

Not annoying slang terms such as "OMFG!" or "That's how I roll." We're all aware of those. When we use them, we're trying to be cool (or ironic).

No, I'm talking about good old regular words that turn into monsters.

If you've ever studied a foreign language and then conversed with real speakers on a daily basis, you've noticed these. They're the words you didn't learn in class, but regular people use them all the frickin' time. They will throw you, and you will have to figure out the meaning from context.

For instance, when I lived in France, I continually heard students say "facultatif" (optional) and "grosso modo" (roughly, approximately, in general). The latter, you may notice, isn't French.

And French speakers who come here are probably thrown by how often we say "actually." Don't try doing that in France, where "actuellement" means "right now" or "currently." In American English it appears to mean "I feel like pausing in my sentence to collect my thoughts, while adding a bit of emphasis."

How do we know which words and phrases we overuse? We have to create Internet/texting abbreviations for them: IIRC (if I remember correctly), imho (in my humble opinion), wrt (with regard to), prolly, obvs. Saying them hundreds of times per day is easy; writing them is a pain.

I'm not saying it's wrong to lean on these totally everyday terms. (Totally not!)

But, as an editor, I notice when a heretofore modest little word or phrase suddenly grows very big and overshadows its competitors. I get tired of reading it, and I wonder if people are using it because they need it, or just because it sounds smart.

Here's my overused word of the week: "ostensibly."

According to the dictionary, ostensibly means "apparently, to all outward appearances."

Simple enough, no? But lately people have started to lean on this word. To find out why, I did a search and found examples from recent stories in Seven Days. (Writers, I'm not trying to embarrass you! The usage isn't "wrong" per se.)

Examples, all from the past few months:

"LeMay can certainly take significant credit for shaping Revelation Skirts ... In addition to producing and ostensibly arranging the album, he plays bass, drums, organ and guitar."

 "Much Ado also represents a thematic transition ... The saga of young fiancés Hero and Claudio ostensibly drives the plot."

"The figures in Colburn’s 'Variations on a Theme' have a quite different collective presence in their almost surreal setting — ostensibly outdoors, it has the formality of studio setup with a faux backdrop."

"First, he suggests, antismoking groups are ideologically opposed to the idea of smokers “going through the motions of what ostensibly looks like smoking”..."

"There I was, driving down the road, ostensibly minding my own business, but not really."

"When I heard about the first-ever Spartan Race — ostensibly an adult obstacle course meant to test even the meatiest gym rats and gung-ho-est jarheads — I knew I had to go."

Using our trusty search engine, I found uses of "ostensibly" going back to 2001, but more than half of them were from '07 on. While our archives for those years are probably fuller, I'm guessing the word's stock has indeed risen.

So, why have people started saying "ostensibly" instead of "apparently"? Does it mean more, or just sound smarter?

Looking at the examples above, I see the meaning of "ostensibly" slipping around. In some cases, it's used to indicate false appearance as opposed to reality ("ostensibly minding my own business, but not really"). In others, it refers to an appearance that is probably true ("ostensibly arranging the album" -- I assume this means the artist isn't credited with the arrangement but obviously did it). Or it could be an initial impression the author has yet to verify through experience, like the one about the Spartan Race.

In still other cases, the "ostensible" thing isn't exactly a lie, but it is the surface beneath which we find a deeper truth: Much Ado is not just about lovers; Colburn's painting makes the outdoors look like the indoors.

Then there are cases where "ostensibly" is ostensibly redundant, like the quote from the story about e-cigarettes (not author Ken Picard's words, but an interviewee's): "going through the motions of what ostensibly looks like smoking." If it looks like smoking, then it appears to be smoking, and it's "ostensibly smoking." The word just emphasizes that what appears to be smoking really isn't, which is also conveyed by the phrase "going through the motions."

That's how people talk -- overemphasizing to make a point. Nothing wrong with it. I just think it's interesting that we're tossing the word "ostensibly" into our sloppy speech without thinking much about it.

But when we write, we do have a chance to think.

So here's my suggestion: When you reach for "ostensibly," think about why you aren't just using "appears" or "seems" or "looks like" or "apparently" or "is reputed to be." Is it because you're sick of those noncommittal phrases? Can you really solve the problem by using "ostensibly"?

Don't just use the word because it's multisyllabic and sounds faintly professorial. Don't use it to make your sentences waffle or to give yourself a way out if the "ostensible" turns out not to be true.

If you write, "He was ostensibly a model student," for instance, you should be able to show why that appearance was not the full story. If you just mean that his mom told you he was a model student, but you don't consider her the most objective source, say so.

In short, use the word when you mean it. Not when you ostensibly mean it.

Postscript: More Word Weeds

Kevin has submitted some words and phrases he'd like to see less of in 7D:


that's (not) how I roll




In my mind, the first two are in a special category -- slang. Does it make our writing sound young and hip, or trying-too-hard and dated? That is the question.

The last three words have the same smarty-pants sheen as "ostensibly." They sound like something a literary critic would say, except now journalists and everybody with a blog is saying them. Good trend or bad?

I'd add to "meme" and "trope" a strangely popular word I've started to notice: "iteration." Maybe I'll tackle that in a future post.

For now, anyone else got words they want to see less of? More of? I'll give some thought to the words I lean too hard on. 'Cause, God knows, I've got 'em.

terroir - cool, but over used.

When someone is talking to me, face to face, and she uses the word "actually," I instantly don't believe a word she is saying. It's forever been my BS-detector.

Excellent post, Margot. This compliment comes from a fellow word nerd who hopes your musings will become a regular feature on Blurt.

My hated phrase: "the reality of it is..." A wordier version of "actually" that gives the speaker a chance to be the all-knowing expert talking to the uninformed.

To my (untrained) eye, I'd say that most of those examples of ostensibly could be deleted and keep the intention of the sentence intact.

As for the slang, I think it's fine for opinion/light pieces, but for hard reporting, no way.

I wrote a column/rant in college about how much I can't stand the phrase "It is what it is." So meaningless! That's more of a spoken tic than a written one, though.

Sometimes I use the word "incidentally" too much. I blame that one on reading too much J.D. Salinger.

Two words that make me cringe: "unique," which, as an editor, I allow one time per year; and "handful," a sloppy catch-all word that's been sneaking more and more into news articles recently, e.g., "a handful of people attended," or "only a handful of cars in the parking lot."

How about "resto" in food and restaurant reviews? And why do I see "'em" in place of "them" so much? I cringe every time I read both of those words which I see quite often in Seven Days. Like nails on a chalkboard. Oh, and from one "grammar fascist" to another, I would have written, "Since just yesterday I lectured..." instead of "Since I just yesterday lectured..." but perhaps that's quibbling?

Is there a rule about the placement of those adverbs, KT? I guess I'm not a very good grammar fascist. In cases like that, I just go with whatever sounds right. (But I like your version better, sound-wise.)

I don't like "resto," but it saves us from saying "restaurant" and "eatery" 50 billion times. As for "'em," that's definitely a taste thing. I'm OK with it used sparingly. Like slang, it's an informal element used for informal writing. But it can sound forcedly casual. (Is forcedly a word? Spell check says NO. Oh, well.)

But I hate, hate, hate "unique." I'm constantly reminding people that it means "one of a kind," not just "rare" or "special." With "ubiquitous," I'm slightly more forgiving. It doesn't literally have to be everywhere. But anything you call ubiquitous should feel, well, inescapable. Like media mentions of Twitter, say.

I don't like to be the vocabulary police and declare certain words and phrases off limits. But when I see people leaning on the same ones over and over, they do start to bother me. So what I was really trying to say with this post wasn't "Avoid these words at all costs" but "When you reach for these words, think about why and consider alternatives, just to keep your writing fresh."

Plus I just like to ponder how certain words become, er, ubiquitous, as William Safire does in his On Language column.

How about words that people use too often, and are used incorrectly? For example:

"enormity" - not a synonym for "enormousness"; it means "outrageously evil or despicable" ("the enormity of the 9/11 attacks", vs. "the enormousness of the casualties on 9/11")

"fulsome" - people use it to mean "lavish", but it really means "overdone", "excessive", or "gross" ("fulsome praise" is not a compliment)

"momentarily" - means "briefly", not "soon" (if the stewardess tells you "We'll be landing momentarily", it's not a good sign)

arguably, the most useless overused word in any written treatise is arguably. everything written, spoken or thought is arguable. writing it just makes the author look shaky...why say anything at all if you're afraid to just make the danged statement? show some spine!

I'm also not a fan of "the truth of the matter is" (a sibling of "the reality of it is"). For starters, unless you want us to start suspecting that some of the things you say are lies, why is it necessary to qualify what you're about to say by calling it a truth? If it is necessary, we already understand what we're talking about so feel free to simply say "the truth is." So instead of, "the truth of the matter is that everyone makes mistakes when writing," say "the truth is everyone makes mistakes when writing" or, even better, "everyone makes mistakes when writing."

As for misused words, although I am all for honoring original definitions, the fact of the matter is that language adapts depending on how it is used by society. Though "momentarily" may have originally meant "briefly," now it also means "soon." Similarly, "presently" first meant "currently" before it meant "soon" and now it means "currently" OR "soon."

Another disturbing trend: not capitalizing sentences in blog comments. :)

I love this discussion.

I love this post, Margot! Although, I'm now self-conscious about the columns I turn in to you for editing.

When I write, I always include "just" way too many times and have to edit. I guess I write how I talk.

Fewer and fewer writers of opinion seem able to resist sticking the word "somehow" into sentences where it isn't needed. Typically it's to signal that a point of view you are taking exception to has no rational basis. Random example: "many Americans believe that somehow they are less special to God if they evolved..." The point of view being criticized may indeed be flimsy, but using "somehow" as an all-purpose verbal death ray strikes me, more often than not, as simply cheap and lazy.

Tom Daley's post here reminds me of another "hipster" word that ought to be put into a retirement home: Random.

College students, esp, use it constantly to mean anything unfamiliar, as in "So, like, this random dude just ordered a PBR."

Excellent post, Margot. Here are a few American-English phrases I'm nominating for retirement:

"Needless to say": Yes, I confess I've relied on this pointless crutch many times in the past. Now, whenever I'm tempted to use it, I just stop writing altogether and go outside and take a walk.

"Impact" as a verb: Unless I'm talking to a dentist about my impacted tooth, this one grates on me. "Impactful" is even more hideous.

"Irregardless": These folks I send a free dictionary just to be "Ironical."

"Majorly": Ugh! Say no more.

The most irritating additional to come from the under-30 set: "It's all good." Oh, yeah? If you think so, you haven't been paying much attention lately.

Addition. Not additional.

I agree with the "random" comment. "You're so random!" No, you're not.

The word I have seen popping up all over, especially in book/blog/article titles is "Musings". The Musings of Someone Trying to Appear Edgy, Mysterious, and Intellectual. I don't think it makes the content seem any more interesting or thought provoking.

(commenting on a blog about words and writing made me second guess every word I was writing...)

As there are many definitions for music there are many divisions and groupings of music, many of which are caught up in the argument over the definition of music. Among the larger genres are classical music, popular music or commercial music (including rock and roll), country music and folk music. Nike Dunk Low

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