Category Archives: Hackneyed Phrases

Banned phrases

Carlos Lozada, editor of The Washington Post‘s Outlook, has published a priceless collection of clichés that are favored by journalists but are banned in Outlook. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if these words and phrases could truly be exterminated? I would not rule out involuntary application of electroconvulsive therapy as a means to that worthy end.

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Sooner than later

I agree with Bryan Garner that the hackneyed expression sooner rather than later is redundant and should be avoided in favor of a simple soon. See Garner’s Modern American Usage, p. 759-60. But what I find truly annoying is the bastardized version sooner than later, which is not only redundant but also incoherent. Though it may be too late to eradicate this verbal weed, we should at least avoid propagating it ourselves, and we should condemn those who allow it to invade their speech or writing.

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Long story short

I am not fond of the hackneyed phrase to make a long story short (or its many trite cousins, including to cut to the chase and to get down to business). But it does not bother me all that much if used sparingly. What does grate on me is the truncated, slangy version long story short, as in these annoying examples:

From Time — Long story short, he quit his job to become a musician.

From The AtlanticLong story short: our system of finance is irrational and disorganized and presents perverse incentives to doctors, hospitals, and communities.

Perhaps I’m being overly rigid: the shorthand version of the phrase, after years of irritating repetition, may have become idiomatically acceptable (like the even more irritating push the envelope). It certainly has the advantage of brevity. But I cannot help thinking less of writers who compound their banality with slovenliness.

My advice: avoid the phrase entirely, but, if you cannot help yourself, at least use the standard idiomatic expression and stay away from its bastard offspring.

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Lingering honorifics

I object to the convention of calling former public officeholders by their erstwhile titles. Governor Romney? Senator Santorum? Speaker Gingrich? Governor Palin? No, no, no, and no. That these characters once served in those positions does not mean that their former honorifics attach to them for life. What is wrong with Mr. Romney or Ms. Palin?

My view is entirely bipartisan. I object no less to President Clinton, Governor Dukakis, and Senator Bayh. Clinton is no longer president (to his everlasting regret); Dukakis hasn’t been governor in more than 20 years; neither Birch nor Evan Bayh is a sitting senator. It is not in the slightest disrespectful to call each of them Mr.

These lingering honorifics can get out of hand. Last week on the PBS Newshour, Judy Woodruff was interviewing David Boren, who spent four years as Governor of Oklahoma and 16 years as a Senator, and who now serves as president of the University of Oklahoma. Woodruff got all tangled up trying to figure out whether to call him Governor, Senator, or President, when a nice simple Mr. would have done just fine. She was also interviewing Christie Whitman, who followed her service as Governor of New Jersey with a term as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Woodruff felt the need to call her Governor, but why not Administrator?

At our nation’s founding, we rejected the British tradition of bestowing titles on the rich and powerful. We have no dukes or earls; we do not call anyone “your excellency” or “your lordship.” We dilute that salutary principle when we treat former public officeholders as if they have ascended permanently to a peerage.

Perhaps I’m overreacting in this season of politics, with so many former public officials parading around the political platform and performing in the media circus. But if I had my way, I would criminalize all this oozing obsequiousness toward those who once held but who no longer occupy high public office.

For a more extensive (and more nuanced) treatment of this burning issue, take a look at Emily Yoffe’s Slate article entitled You Are Not the Speaker — Politicians like Newt Gingrich who cling to their old titles are pretentious, incorrect, and un-American.

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That said

I dislike that said and its cousins (that being said, that having been said, having said that). These faddish, mildly pompous expressions are almost always inferior to a simple but or however.

If you’re interested in a lengthy treatment of the subject (I cannot imagine why you would be), take a look at this entry on the Language Log.

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Three annoying clichés

You simply cannot read a news item on the Internet or watch a TV talk show without seeing or hearing at least one of the following hackneyed phrases, each of which I find intensely irritating.

Double down — This Blackjack expression refers to a player’s option to double his bet in exchange for one additional card, traditionally dealt face down. The expression has been dragged into political discourse and is now used indiscriminately to refer to a politician’s reiteration of a position or adherence to a strategy. So, for example: “Romney will double down on his core message about the economy” (http://wapo.st/uvHen8); “Fox News tried to double down on the pretend outrage over Kagan’s astonishment that a law had passed” (http://slate.me/w2WF6L). The first time you hear the phrase it sounds fine. The hundredth time you hear it you want to strangle the culprit who utters it. A good journalist or talking head will shun the phrase and come up with something less tired.

Kick the can down the road — The most detestable consequence of our dysfunctional politics, aside from the damage being inflicted on our nation, is the proliferation of this trite expression. Run a search for the phrase on Google News any random day and your odds of finding it in an article published that day are close to 100%. Here’s today’s illustration, from the Baltimore Sun: “But what the payroll tax cut also does is kick the can down the road, in the sense that future taxpayers will have to make up the revenues that are being lost today with new revenues in the future” (http://bsun.md/rOqE76). Listen to any news show on TV and you’re almost guaranteed to hear the phrase repeatedly. When will it stop? Probably not until some new platitude takes its place.

Push the envelope — This is a bastardized version of the expression most of us first learned in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, in which test pilots take an aircraft up to or beyond its theoretical altitude or speed limit (referred to as its “performance envelope”). The original phrase was push the edge of the envelope. It has been shortened, at least in political discourse, to push the envelope, which brings to mind a wholly inapt image of someone pushing an envelope along a desk. This expression is not as common as the other two, but I find it no less grating.

Okay, this is where I get to create my first poll, and you get to weigh in on which of these expressions is the most irritating. Since my readership is rather limited (a euphemism for low single digits), the polling results may not be all that reliable, but who cares?

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Not so fast

“Not so fast” is a trite, irritating, cutesy-poo expression that inept headline writers, mediocre journalists, and no-brain TV talking heads have fallen in love with in recent years. It should be banished from serious discourse. Here are just two examples from today’s news sources that are enough to make me gag:

UFO in Peru identified as falling meteor? ‘Not so fast,’ some claim

Chinese military hacking caught on video? Not so fast

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