Verbal crutches are killing English

GRANT SMITHIES
Last updated 05:00 16/03/2014
Quiche
PATRICIA SOPER/Fairfax NZ
QUICHE: It may be good, but is it really astonishing?

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OPINION: I'm tired of people saying "It doesn't get much better than that", especially when it clearly does.

I've lost patience with fellow citizens who claim to be "getting out of their comfort zone" in order that they might "take it to the next level". My head threatens to explode and spray startled bystanders with flying brain matter whenever someone proclaims yet another mediocre musical performance, house interior or plate of food is invested with "the wow factor".

Like dog-poo on the footpath, the conversations of middle-aged, middle-class New Zealanders have become littered with stinky little clusters of stock phrases picked up from American TV shows. I want to say to these people - Have you ever listened to yourself? What do you mean "bring your A-game"? Why on earth would anyone want to "step up to the plate"? Does anything you consider to be kinda OK really need to "tick all the right boxes"? These shonky little verbal crutches are unnecessary, my friend. Kick them aside, and walk. Walk free! You can do it!

English is a beautiful language, as rich, nuanced and ripe with possibility as any other. And yet we insist on cramming our conversations with recently imported verbal clichés that add neither meaning nor beauty to our speech. These over-familiar phrases provide neither information nor aesthetic pleasure to the listener, provoking instead a long list of questions.

For example, isn't it possible for someone to give their all without contributing a statistically impossible "110 per cent"? Can you discuss things you'd like to do some day without them appearing on some sort of pre-mortality inventory known as your "bucket list"? Can't someone be knowledgeable on a certain subject without others proclaiming them a "guru"?

Is it possible for a modern citizen to have noticed something without invoking their own personal electro-magnetic detection system and declaring said thing to be "on my radar"? Isn't "going forward" just fool's shorthand for "in the future"? Is it possible for a new product or idea to be interesting or unusual without it being proclaimed "a game-changer"? Why must we "touch base with" or "reach out to" someone, rather than contact them?

And is it really the case that "everything happens for a reason"? This noxious phrase is commonly uttered by reality show contestants when they're voted off, presumably in order to suggest this outcome was cosmically predetermined and thus beyond their control. But the fatalistic philosophy underpinning this saying is deeply offensive, suggesting by extension that horrific accidents were somehow inevitable, and all the world's poor, hungry, ill or oppressed are merely living out their destiny. In truth, most things happen for reasons far too complex to be summed up in a glib one-liner.

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There are many individual words whose careless overuse also gets right on my tits. Excellence. Passion. Journey. Most loathsome of all, perhaps, is "amazing". As in, "this quiche is amaaazing!" or "Oh, my God! The weather is amazing!". Hey, how was that gig you went to last night? "Amazing!". Um, cheers.

Has there ever existed in the English language a word that imparts a smaller amount of useful information? Yes, we hear that the speaker is astonished by something, albeit something trivial. This suggests they're probably fairly impressionable, but tells us precisely zero about the quiche/weather/gig.

I am, of course, as guilty of the the next person of using useless expressions. Like "of course". Occasionally, readers write in to protest my enthusiasm for pointless space fillers such as "really" or "actually". I remain unrepentant. These words may add little new meaning to a sentence, but they make a valuable contribution to rhythm and flow.

There's a saying among columnists: "don't feed the pedants.". Any time you write about aspects of English usage or grammar that irritate, you will be deluged with emails from retired English teachers sharing pet peeves of their own. One of these pet peeves will almost certainly be borderline illiterates such as myself using "you" rather than "one" in the previous sentence.

But what the hell. Pedants get hungry too, so I'm prepared to toss them the occasional tasty snack. I encourage you to write to me at grant.smithies@fairfaxmedia.co.nz, or leave a comment below, with a few of your most hated clichés. No point seething in private. Feel free to vent. I'll have no time to respond to individual emails, but will harvest the worst transgressions for an upcoming column.

- Sunday Star Times

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