From The ABC Of Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers

The Oxford English Dictionary recognises only two meanings for this word. One is "the ground or surface lying at the back of or beyond the chief objects of contemplation ". The other is " a less prominent position, where an object is not readily noticed ". The word has come into great favour, and is ranging a long way from the humble spheres assigned to it by the dictionary. Up to a point its extensions have been useful. To speak of examining the background of a proposal, in the sense of trying to find out what more there is in it than meets the eye, is a reasonable metaphor. And it is a reasonable extension of it to write:

Men and women with widely divergent backgrounds, ranging from graduates and trained social workers to a coalminer, a railway clerk, and a clerk in an ironmongery store, had in fact succeeded.

But, like all these new favourites, it is beginning to get out of hand, and to displace more precise words:

From your particulars it would appear that your background is more suitable for posts in Government Departments employing quantity surveyors.

This does not seem to mean anything different from "you are better qualified..."

It is surprising to find more women than men, but local experience provides the background; during the war women left an area where there were no jobs for them.

Here it seems to be masquerading as explanation.

It was agreed that a warden should possess a sound educational background.

Here it falls under suspicion of doing nothing at all except show off. Why not "a sound education"?

« Vocabulary » « Guide » « ABC of Plain Words » « Use Of English » « Library » « Home »