"And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken?" — ST. PAUL
How popular and how influential is the practice [of personifying abstract words] may be shown by such a list of words as the following:—Virtue, Liberty, Democracy, Peace, Germany, Religion, Glory—all invaluable words, indispensable even, but able to confuse the clearest issues unless controlled." — OGDEN and RICHARDS
The Lure Of The Abstract Word
THE reason for preferring the concrete to the abstract is clear. Your purpose must be to make your meaning plain. Now if, as we have seen, even such concrete words as ship, gold and money have a penumbra of uncertainty round them, an incomparably larger one surrounds all abstract words. If you use an abstract word when you might use a concrete one you are handicapping yourself in your task, difficult enough in any case, of making yourself understood. (27)
Unfortunately the very vagueness of abstract words is one of the reasons for their popularity. To express one's thoughts accurately is hard work, and to be precise is sometimes dangerous. We are tempted to prefer the safer obscurity of the abstract. It is the greatest vice of present-day writing. Writers seem to find it more natural to say "Was this the realisation of an anticipated liability?" than "Did you expect to have to do this?"; to say "Communities where anonymity in personal relationships prevails" than "Communities where people do not know one another". To resist this temptation, and to resolve to make your meaning plain to your reader even at the cost of some trouble to yourself, is more important than any other single thing if you would convert a flabby style into a crisp one. As Mr. G. M. Young has said, an excessive reliance on the noun at the expense of the verb will, in the end, detach the mind of the writer from the realities of here and now from when and how and in what mood the thing was done and insensibly induce a habit of abstraction generalisation and vagueness. To what lengths this can go may be illustrated by these two examples:
The desirability of attaining unanimity so far as the general construction of the body is concerned is of considerable importance from the production aspect.
The actualisation of the motivation of the forces must to a great extent be a matter of personal angularity.
The first, which relates to the building of vehicles, means, I suppose, that in order to produce the vehicles quickly it is important to agree on a standard body. The meaning of the second is past conjecture. The perpetrator of it is an economist, not an official.
Here are some less extreme examples of the habit of using abstract words to say in a complicated way something that might be said simply and directly:
There has been persistent instability in numbers of staff. (Staff has constantly varied in numbers.)
The cessation of house-building operated over a period of five years. (No houses were built for five years. ) Note the infelicity of "a cessation operated". Operate is just what cessations cannot do.
A high degree of carelessness, pre-operative and post-operative, on the part of some of the hospital staff, took place. (Some of the hospital staff were very careless both before and after the operation. )
The cessation of the present restrictions cannot be made. (The present restrictions cannot be ended.)
Sometimes abstract words are actually invented, so powerful is the lure of saying things this way.
The reckonability of former temporary service for higher leave entitlement.
The following is not official writing, but as it appeared in a newspaper that never shrinks from showing up the faults of official writing, it deserves a place:
Initiation of a temporary organisation to determine European economic requirements in relation to proposals by Mr. Marshall, American Secretary of State, was announced in the House of Commons this evening.
This way of expressing oneself seems to be tainting official speech as well as writing. "We want you to deny indirect reception", said the goods clerk of my local railway station, telephoning to me about a missing case.
"What does that mean?" I asked. "Why," he said, "we want to make sure that the case has not reached you through some other station".
Exponents of the newer sciences are fond of expressing themselves in abstractions. Perhaps this is unavoidable, but I cannot help thinking that they sometimes make things unnecessarily difficult for their readers. I have given an example on the last page of an economist's wrapping up his meaning in an impenetrable mist of abstractions. Here is one from psychology:
Reserves that are occupied in continuous uni-directional adjustment of a disorder are no longer available for use in the ever-varying interplay of organism and environment in the spontaneity of mutual synthesis.
In official writing the words availability, lack and dearth contribute much to the same practice, though they do not produce the same obscurity. Perhaps the reason why those words are so popular is that we have suffered so much from what it is fashionable to call a lack of availability of so many useful things.
We would point out that availabilities of this particular material are extremely limited. (. . . that this material is extremely scarce.)
The actual date of the completion of the purchase should coincide with the availability of the new facilities. (The purchase should not be completed until the new facilities are available. )
The lack of attraction in the three services is so deep that it has been found quite impossible to man them on a voluntary basis. (The three services are so unattractive. )
Lack is a useful word to denote a deficiency of something, and occasionally, though less commonly, the complete absence of something. But this word is being pressed too much into service. For instance, "there is a complete lack of spare underground wire" is not the natural way of saying "we have no spare underground wire" or "There exists a considerable lack of knowledge about . ." for "We do not know much about . . .", or "A dearth of information exists" for "We have very little information".
Position And Situation
The words position and situation have a great fascination for those who are given to blurring the sharp outlines of what they have to say. A debate takes place in the House of Commons about an acute scarcity of coal during a hard winter. A speaker wants to say that he does not see how it would have been possible for the Government to make sure of there being enough coal. Does he say so? No; the miasma of abstract words envelops him and he says,
"In view of all the circumstances I do not see how this situation could have been in any way warded off".
Later the spokesman for the Government wants to strike a reassuring note, and express his confidence that we shall get through the winter without disaster. He too takes refuge in vague abstractions.
"We shall", he says, "ease through this position without any deleterious effect on the situation."
On an historic occasion it fell to a master of words to make an announcement at a time of even graver crisis. Sir Winston Churchill did not begin his broadcast on the 17th June, 1940:
"The position in regard to France is extremely serious". He began: "The news from France is very bad". He did not end it: "We have absolute confidence that eventually the situation will be restored". He ended:"We are sure that in the end all will come right".
Position and situation, besides replacing more precise words, have a way of intruding into sentences that can do better without them. These words should be regarded as danger-signals, and the writer who finds himself using one should think whether he cannot say what he has to say more directly.
It may be useful for Inspectors to be informed about the present situation on this matter. (to know how this matter now stands.)
Unless these wagons can be moved the position will soon be reached where there will be no more wagons to be filled. (there will soon be no more. ..)
Should the position arise where a hostel contains a preponderance of public assistance cases....(If a hostel gets too many public assistance cases...)
All three sentences run more easily if we get rid of the situation and the positions.
It is common form for an Insurance Company, when asking for a renewal premium, to say:
No-claim bonus is shown subject to the position in this respect remaining unprejudiced until expiry.
This wraps up in verbiage the simple statement that the insured has a right to a no-claim bonus only if no claim is made before the expiry of the policy.
Position in regard to is an ugly expression, not always easy to avoid, but used more often than it need be.
"The position in regard to the supply of labour and materials has deteriorated" seems to come more naturally to the pen than "labour and materials are more difficult to get". "No one has any doubt", writes the Manchester Guardian, "that deceased senior officials of the Civil Service have in regard to engraved on their hearts; and their successors to-day show no recovery from this kind of hereditary lockjaw".
But it is not fair to put all the blame on officials. Even The Times is capable of saying,
"The question of the British position in regard to the amount of authorisation" rather than "the question how much Britain is to get of the amount authorised".
The Abstract Appendage
This brings us to what has been called the abstract appendage, for position, situation and conditions find themselves in that role more commonly than any other words. I take the term from a letter in The Times from Mr. John Buxton:
Sir,—How long are we to suffer from "weather conditions"? There was a time when the Englishman's favourite topic of conversation was the weather... . Now it is no longer recognised as a substantial and elemental thing, but is reduced, by the addition of this abstract appendage, to the status of a symptom or an excuse, and no one knows what to do about it. Prime Minister, back bencher and Civil servant all irritate us with the phrase in print; it is left to the B.B.C. to go even further and, omitting the word "weather", to refer to "cold, wintry, snowy (etc.) conditions".
This is the weather the shepherd shuns
And so do I,
wrote Thomas Hardy, not
"The Present weather conditions are causing considerable inconvenience to the sheep-farmer".
We cannot shun (or like) "weather conditions", and the sooner the sloppy phrase is destroyed the sooner our rulers will realise its powers for good or ill.
This may be thought over-critical. What exactly is the writer s objection to weather conditions? It cannot be the objection of a grammarian to using the word weather adjectivally; it is a common and useful English idiom to make nouns serve this purpose, and few words can claim a better right to be so employed than that which has given us weather forecast, weather prophet, weather eye, weather quarter and weather tiles. The objection must then be to the use of two words where one would do, a sound objection if it can be sustained. But can it here? Weather conditions imports a larger idea than weather does, at least in time of snow and frost. It embraces the conditions created by yesterday's weather and the likelihood of to-morrow s weather changing them. But the attack, even if badly aimed, was directed against a real fault in official English. If the writer had waited until the next day and attacked, as he might have done, the announcement that blizzard conditions had returned to the Midlands, he could not have been met with any such plea. It was not blizzard conditions that had returned; it was a blizzard. Similarly it is both unnecessary and quaint to say that temperatures will return to normal values instead of merely that they will return to normal. Level has also been greatly in demand of late as an abstract appendage. A correspondent has kindly presented me with a collection of hundreds of specimens, ranging from pub-and-street-corner-level to summit-level and world-level through every conceivable intermediate level. This passion for picturing all our relations with one another as stratifications is an odd phenomenon at a time when we are supposed to be developing into a classless State.
The Headline Phrase
More serious is the harm that is being done to the language by excessive use of nouns as adjectives. In the past, as I have said, the language has been greatly enriched by this free-and-easy habit. We are surrounded by innumerable examples—War Department, Highway Code, Nursery School, Coronation Service, Trades Union Congress and so on. But something has gone wrong recently with this useful practice; its abuse is corrupting English prose. It has become natural to say "World population is increasing faster than world food production" instead of "The population of the world is increasing faster than the food it produces". "The fats position will then be relieved" instead of "More fats will then be available", "The eggs position exceeds all expectation" instead of "Eggs are more plentiful than was expected". It is old-fashioned to speak of the "state of the world"; it must be the "world situation". The fact is, as Lord Dunsany once remarked, that
"too many ofs have dropped out of the language, and the dark of the floor is littered with this useful word".
We meet daily, he adds, with things like "England side captain selection" instead of "Selection of captain of English eleven"; or even "England side captain selection difficulty". Nor would they stop nowadays at "England side captain selection difficulty rumour".
This sort of language is no doubt pardonable in headlines, where as many stimulating words as possible must be crowded into spaces so small that treaties have had to become pacts, ambassadors envoys, investigations probes and all forms of human enterprise bids. Headlines have become a language of their own, knowing no law and often quite incomprehensible until one has read the article that they profess to summarise. "INSANITY RULES CRITIC" and "W. H. SMITH OFFER SUCCESS" have quite different meanings from their apparent ones. Who could know what is meant by "HANGING PROBE NAMES SOON" until he has read on and discovered that what it means is "The names of the members of the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment will shortly be announced"? Who could guess that the headline "UNOFFICIAL STRIKES CLAIM" introduces a report of a speech by a Member of Parliament who said that there was abundant evidence that unofficial strikes were organised and inspired by Communists as part of a general plan originating from abroad? I do not see how those three words by themselves can have any meaning at all; to me they convey a vague suggestion of the discovery of oil or gold by someone who ought not to have been looking for it. And if the announcement BULL GRANTS INCREASE is construed grammatically, it does not seem to deserve a headline at all: one would say that that was no more than was to be expected from any conscientious bull.
But what may be pardonable in headlines will not do in the text. Nursery School is a legitimate use of the noun-adjective, but nursery school provision is not at present regarded as a proper way of saying the provision of nursery schools. Electricity crisis restrictions and world supply situation may be all right as newspaper headlines but not in English prose. For instance:
An extra million tons of steel would buy our whole sugar import requirements. (all the sugar we need to import.)
Food consumption has been dominated by the world supply situation. (People have had to eat what they could get.)
Rationing of meat must continue because of the world supply situation. (because there is not enough meat in the world.)
An exceptionally choice example is:
The programme must be on the basis of the present head of labour ceiling allocation overall.
Here Head of labour means number of building operatives. Ceiling means maximum. Overall, as usual, means nothing. The whole sentence means "The programme must be on the assumption that we get the maximum number of building operatives at present allotted to us".
Everything is being done to expedite plant installation within the limiting factors of steel availability and the preparation of sites.
The only thing that can be said for the writer of this is that his conscience pulled him up before the end, and he did not write "sites preparation". The sentence should have run, "So far as steel is available and sites can be prepared, everything is being done to expedite the installation of plant".
The use of a noun as an adjective should be avoided where the same word is already an adjective with a different meaning. Do not, for instance, say "material allocation" when you mean "allocation of material", but reserve that expression against the time when you may want to make clear that the allocation you are considering is not a spiritual one. For the same reason this phrase is not felicitous:
In view of the restrictions recently imposed on our capital economic situation....
By way of emphasising that the official is by no means the only offender, I will add three examples from elsewhere. The first is from a circular issued by a commercial firm:
This compulsion is much regretted, but a large vehicle fleet operator restriction in mileage has now been made imperative in meeting the demand for petrol economy.
This translated into English presumably means:
We much regret having to do this, but we have been obliged to restrict greatly the operation of our fleet of vehicles [or to restrict the operation of our fleet of large vehicles?] to meet the demand for economy in petrol.
The second is from an American sociological book:
Examination of specific instances indicated that in most cases where retirement dissatisfaction existed advance activity programming by individuals had been insignificant or even lacking.
Here again I translate with diffidence, but the meaning seems to be:
Examination of specific instances indicated that most of those who had not wanted to retire had given little or no thought to planning their future.
The third from an article by a politician:
Avoiding technicalities . . . it might mean either mandatory (though flexible) minimum liquidity ratios, or a once-for-all sterilising of excess ban liquidity....
Here translation baffles me.
Abstract Adjectival Phrases
By this I mean using a phrase consisting of an abstract noun (e.g. character, nature, basis, description, disposition), with an adjective, where a simple adjective would do as well. This too offends against the rule that you should say what you have to say as simply and directly as possible in order that you may be readily understood.
These claims are of a very far-reaching character. (These claims are very far-reaching. )
The weather will be of a showery character. (It will be showery.)
The wages will be low owing to the unremunerative nature of the work.
The translation of the last example will present no difficulty to a student of Mr. Micawber who once said of the occupation of selling corn on commission:
"It is not an avocation of a remunerative description — in other words, it does not pay".
Proposition is another abstract word used in the same way.
Decentralisation on a regional basis is now a generally practical proposition. (is now generally feasible. )
Accommodation in a separate building is not usually a practical proposition. (is not usually feasible.)
The high cost of land in clearance areas makes it a completely uneconomic proposition to build cottages in those areas. (makes it completely uneconomic to build cottages there.)
Proposition is becoming a blunderbuss word (see Chapter 3), constantly used for purposes for which plan or project would be better.
Basis is specially likely to lead writers to express themselves in roundabout ways. When you find you have written "on a. . . basis" always examine it critically before letting it stand.
Such officer shall remain on his existing salary on a mark-time basis. (shall mark time on his existing salary.)
The organisation of such services might be warranted in particular localities and on a strictly limited basis. (scale.)
The machines would need to be available both day and night on a 24-hour basis. (at any time of the day or night.)
Please state whether this is to be a permanent installation or on a temporary line basis. (or a temporary line.)
A legitimate use of basis is:
The manufacturers are distributing their products as fairly as possible on the basis of past trading.
In the course of this book I have called numerous expressions cliches. A cliché may be defined as a phrase whose aptness in a particular context when it was first invented has won it such popularity that it has become hackneyed, and is used without thought in contexts where it is no longer apt. Clichds are notorious enemies of the precise word. To quote from the introduction to Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Cliché s:
They range from fly-blown phrases (explore every avenue) through sobriquets that have lost all point and freshness (the Iron Duke) to quotations that have become debased currency (cups that cheer but not inebriate), metaphors that are now pointless, and formulas that have become mere counters (far be it from me to ... ).
A cliché then is by definition a bad thing, not to be employed by self-respecting writers. Judged by this test, some expressions are unquestionably and in all circumstances clichés. This is true in particular of verbose and facetious ways of saying simple things (conspicuous by its absence, tender mercies, durance vile) and of phrases so threadbare that they cannot escape the suspicion of being used automatically (leave no stone unturned, acid test, psychological moment, leave severely alone). But a vast number of other expressions may or may not be clichés. It depends on whether they are used unthinkingly as reach-me-downs or deliberately chosen as the best means of saying what the writer wants to say. Eric Partridge's Dictionary contains some thousands of entries. But, as he says in his preface, what is a cliché is partly a matter of opinion. It is also a matter of occasion. Many of those in his dictionary may or may not be clichés; it depends on how they are used. Writers would be needlessly handicapped if they were never permitted such phrases as cross the Rubicon, sui generis, swing of the pendulum, thin end of the wedge and white elephant. These may be the fittest way of expressing a writer's meaning. If you choose one of them for that reason you need not be afraid of being called a cliché-monger. The trouble is that writers often use a cliché because they think it fine, or because it is the first thing that comes into their heads. It is always a danger-signal when one word suggests another and Siamese twins are born—part and parcel, intents and purposes and the like. There is no good reason why inconvenience should always be said to be experienced by the person who suffers it and occasioned by the person who causes it. Single words too may become clichés; they are used so often that their edges are blunted while more exact words are neglected. I have already said something in Chapter 7 about those whose popularity comes from the allure of novelty or sparkle; here I will give some examples of a few more that have no such claim to preference; some indeed seem to attract by their very drabness.
"Accommodated", said Justice Shallow; "it comes of accommodo: very good, a good phrase. Good phrases are surely, and ever were, very commendable."
Whitehall feels the same about the noun. They had a reverse not long ago when the phrase accommodation unit was most unkindly received by Sir Winston Churchill and finished off by Sir Hartley Shawcross, who said that it had lost the Labour Party (then in power) 50,000 votes, or if it had not it ought to have done. And so while we stay in the same place we can still call our house our house, or our flat our flat, or our lodgings our lodgings. But if Authority arranges to move us, it will not be to another house, or a different flat, or new lodgings. It will always be to alternative accommodation, and it is as likely as not that we shall be described as being evacuated there. This curious cliché, originally coined by the legislature 20 years ago, has run wild, and its versatility is astonishing. Sometimes it means no more than houses:
The real cause of bad relations between landlord and tenant is the shortage of alternative accommodation.
Or it may mean something less than houses:
Experience has shown that many applications have been received for exemption certificates [sc. from the obligation to provide sanitary conveniences] on the ground that alternative accommodation is available.... Public sanitary conveniences should not be considered satisfactory alternative accommodation.
This word has won an undeserved popularity because it is colourless—a word of broad meaning that saves a writer the trouble of thought. It is a useful word in its place, but not when used from laziness. It may be easier to say "The progress of the building has been affected by the weather", but it is better to use a more precise word — hindered, perhaps, or delayed or stopped. I used to think during the war, when I heard that gas-mains had been affected by a raid, that it would have been more sensible to say that they had been broken.
The use of alternative for such words as other, new, revised or fresh is rife. Perhaps this is due to infection spread by the cliché alternative accommodation. For instance, the Ministry of Health announced one spring that owing to the severe winter the house-building programme for the year had been abandoned, and added that no "alternative programme" would be issued. They might have said other, new, fresh or revised, but alternative must be wrong. There is nothing for it to be an alternative to; the old programme is torn up.
Innumerable examples could be given of this misuse. Here are two:
The Ministry of Transport are arranging alternative transport for the passengers of the Empire Windrush [which was at the bottom of the Mediterranean].
The Minister regrets that he will not be able to hold the Conference arranged for the 15th March. Members will be informed as soon as alternative arrangements have been made.
Alternative must imply a choice between two or more things, as in the following example:
Authorities may order their requirements from one or more of the firms in Appendix II. An order addressed to Firm A may specify Firms B and C as second and third choices. Where no alternative firm is given the order will, if necessary, be re-allocated.
Even in that popular phrase alternative accommodation, the adjective is generally incorrect, for the person to whom the accommodation is offered has usually no alternative to taking it.
Billeting Authorities are requested to report any such cases as they are unable to rebillet, in order that alternative arrangements may be made.
Other is the right word here.
It is generally regarded as pedantry to say that, because of its derivation, alternative must not be used where the choices are more than two.
The ordinary meaning of appreciate, as a transitive verb, is to form an estimate of the worth of anything, to set a value on it, and hence to acknowledge with gratitude. It is useful to polite officials corresponding with members of the public who want more than they can get, as most of us do today. Refusals are softened by such phrases as "I appreciate how hard it is on you not to have it", and "you will appreciate the reasons why I cannot let you have it". However meritorious the purpose, there can be no doubt that appreciate is being used by the writers of official letters and circulars with a freedom that passes reason. An effective way of curbing it might be to resolve never to use the word with a that clause ("I appreciate that there has been delay"), but always give it a noun to govern ("I appreciate your difficulty").
Sometimes the word is used merely by way of polite padding (see chapter 6), or where it would be more suitable to say understand, realise, recognise, be grateful, be obliged.
"It would be appreciated if" can usually be translated into "I shall be glad (or grateful, or obliged, or even pleased) if.. . ". "You will appreciate" can often be better expressed by "you will realise" or even "of course".
This is an irreproachable word. But so also are right, suitable, fitting and proper, and I do not see why appropriate should have it all its own way. In particular, the Whitehall cliché in appropriate cases might be confined more closely than it is now to cases in which it is appropriate. It would be wise too to avoid a word that calls for an explanation of this sort:
"Appropriate weekly rate" means, in relation to any benefit, the weekly rate of personal benefit of that description which is appropriate in the case of the person in relation to whom the provision containing that expression is to be applied.
The proper meaning of to claim is to demand recognition of a right. But the fight to prevent it from usurping the place of assert has been lost in America and seems likely to be lost here also, especially as the B.B.C. have surrendered without a struggle. Here are some recent examples from this country:
The police took statements from about forty people who claimed that they had seen the gunmen in different parts of the city.
The State Department claims that discrimination is being shown against the American film industry.
There are those who claim that the Atlantic Treaty has an aggressive purpose.
I have a friend who claims to keep in his office a filing tray labelled "Too Difficult".
The enlargement of claim ought to be deplored by all those who like to treat words as tools of precision, and to keep their edges sharp. Why should claim, which has its own useful job to do, claim a job that is already being efficiently done by others? Perhaps the idea underlying this usage is that the writer claims credence for an improbable or unverified assertion.
To decimate is to reduce by one-tenth, not to one-tenth. It meant originally to punish mutinous troops by executing one man in ten, chosen by lot. Hence by extension it means to destroy a large proportion; the suggestion it now conveys is usually of a loss much greater than 10 per cent. Because of the flavour of exactness that still hangs about it, an adverb or adverbial phrase should not be used with it. We may say "The attacking troops were decimated", meaning that they suffered heavy losses, but we must not say "The attacking troops were badly decimated", and still less "decimated to the extent of 50 per cent or more.
The following truly remarkable instance of the misuse of decimate was given in the course of correspondence in The Times about the misuse of literally.
I submit the following, long and lovingly remembered from my "penny dreadful" days:
"Dick, hotly pursued by the scalp-hunter, turned in his saddle, fired and literally decimated his opponent."
The proper use of this word is to convey the idea of a gradual unfolding or building up. Do not use it as a synonym for arise, occur, happen, take place, come. A typical example of its misuse is "rising prices might develop" (for "prices might rise").
The Emergency Powers Act had to have a generic title because it was for use in all sorts of emergencies, whether due to war or civil commotion. But once the word got a footing it provided a splendid cloak for every kind of thing, from war downwards, that it was not quite nice to mention specifically. Look at these three extracts from a single memorandum about arrangements for evacuation in 1939:
In the preceding paragraphs the action which would require to be taken in the event of an emergency has been sketched, because a picture of this action naturally follows on a discussion of the transport arrangements and will provide an indication of the manner in which the survey of accommodation now completed by the authority would be used in order to enable the plan to be put into operation at very short notice.
What the paragraph means as a whole is obscure, but it seems pretty clear that here emergency means bombing. The circular goes on to give this advice about expectant mothers:
It will be necessary for each small group to be supervised and accompanied by at least one person qualified to guide them and to deal with any emergencies which may arise — preferably a midwife.
Here the word emergencies seems to be used in a quite different sense.
Finally, we have the following:
An alternative method would be to ask every woman as a routine at booking (i.e. making arrangements for confinement) whether she would wish to be evacuated in an emergency.
Here we are left guessing which sort of an emergency is meant, and even wondering whether evacuated is used in the same sense as before.
I wrote this during the war, but the fascination of the word apparently persists. A correspondent in charge of the preparation of certain measures to be taken in the event of another war writes:
I have given instructions that the use of this word is to be avoided as far as possible. It is used in four different senses:
(a)international tension such as may lead to war;
(c)a state of affairs during war when things get bad (e.g. May-September 1940);
(d)a state of affairs in which supplies of some vital commodity run short, or a situation of some kind gets out of hand.
There is a pernicious habit of inserting the phrase in an emergency without making clear which of the four meanings, if any, it has. Sometimes it should be replaced by "when war threatens", sometimes by "in war", sometimes by "when things become serious", sometimes by "in case of need" or "if the worst comes to the worst". Usually, however, it can be omitted altogether.
This word is given too much work to do. Often some other word such as need, cause, impose, necessitate, involve, might be more appropriate, or at least make a refreshing change. Sometimes entail intrudes where no verb is needed, a common habit of involve.
... a statement in writing that you are willing to bear the cost entailed of opening the case, withdrawing this amount and resealing.
If entailed must be used, the preposition should be in.
The meaning of this popular word has been diluted to a point of extreme insipidity. Originally it meant wrap up in something, enfold. Then it acquired the figurative meaning entangle a person in difficulties or embarrassment, and especially implicate in crime, or a charge. Then it began to lose colour, and to be used as though it meant nothing more than include, contain or imply. It has thus developed a vagueness that makes it the delight of those who dislike the effort of searching for the right word. It is consequently much used, generally where some more specific word would be better and sometimes where it is merely superfluous.
This is no new phenomenon. Early in the twentieth century Sir Clifford Allbutt, writing about the English style of medical students at Cambridge, said:
To involve, with its ugly and upstart noun involvement, has to do duty for to attack, to invade, to injure, to affect, to pervert, to encroach upon, to influence, to enclose, to implicate, to permeate, to pervade, to penetrate, to dislocate, to contaminate and so forth.
Here are a few recent examples from official writing:
The additional rent involved will be £1. (Omit involved.)
There are certain amounts of the material available without permit, but the quantities involved are getting less. (Omit involved.)
It has been agreed that the capital cost involved in the installation of the works shall be included. (. . . that the capital cost of installing...)
It has been inaccurately reported that anything from eight sheep to eight oxen were roasted at the affair. The facts are that six sheep only were involved. (Involved here seers to be an "elegant variation" for roasted.)
Much labour has been involved in advertising. (Much labour has been expended on advertising.)
The following four examples all occur in one paragraph of a memorandum, covering less than half a page, and strikingly illustrate the fascination this word exercises over undiscriminating writers:
The Ministry have indicated that they would not favour any proposal which would involve an increase in establishment at the present time. (Involve here is harmless, but in order to practise shaking off its yoke, let us substitute mean or lead to.)
The Company would oppose this application unless compensation involving a substantial sum were paid. (This one cannot get off so lightly. The writer should have said " unless a substantial sum were paid in compensation ".)
We have been informed that the procedure involved would necessitate lengthy negotiation. . . . (Here involved is doing no work at all and should be omitted.)
Such are some of the sadly flabby uses to which this word of character is put. Reserve it for more virile purposes and especially for use where there is a suggestion of entanglement or complication, as we use involved when we say "this is a most involved subject". Here are two examples of its reasonable use:
This experience has thrown into high relief the complications and delays involved in the existing machinery for obtaining approval.
Mr. Menzies protested against the Australian Government's acceptance of the invitation to the conference at Delhi on the Indonesian dispute, holding that Australia ought not to be involved.
This word has a very wide range of proper meanings as a noun, and should not be made to do any more work— the work, for instance, of subject, topic, consideration and dispute.
To issue an article of equipment to a soldier is a well-established military phrase and an unexceptionable use of issue: the article is issued from store. But the practice has grown up of treating issue as though it meant provide, supply or grant, and this has spread into civilian life.
You were issued with coupons to bring your wardrobe to the standard level.
About this usage Fowler remarked gently, "This is not to be recommended". Fifteen years later Sir Alan Herbert said more firmly "This is black". But little notice seems to have been taken of them. Indeed the sentence "he was issued with a licence" is taken by Mr. Hugh Sykes Davies in his Grammar Without Tears as the text of a spirited defence of such constructions against the charge of being "bad grammar". But the true offence is not a matter of grammar: it is that there is no need for issue with to usurp the place of grant, and to allow it to do so is to contribute to the debasement of language by blurring the significance of words.
This word is a great favourite, especially in business letters. It is made to mean almost anything. It is safe to say that any sentence in which this omnibus use occurs will be improved either by omitting the word or by substituting a word of more definite meaning. The following is a typical instance; it refers to the condition of a set of batteries:
The accessory items, stands and other parts, are satisfactory, but the sediment approximates to 1-in, in depth and. . . this item can be removed conveniently when the renewals are effected.
Accessory items should be changed to accessories and this item can be removed to this can be removed.
The next example is from a notice of a meeting:
*I shall be able to attend the meeting.
*I shall not be able to attend the meeting.
*Please delete item not required.
Here, what meant sediment in the first example appears to mean words.
This is a harmless word, unexceptionable in such company as major road, major war, major railway accident. But it is so much used that it is supplanting other more serviceable ones. Do not let major make you forget such words as main, important, chief, principal. For instance, important or significant might have been better than major in:
We do not expect to see any major change in the near future.
The favour that this word has won during the past few years is astonishing. It is an egregious example of the process I described as boring out a weapon of precision into a blunderbuss. Indeed the word seems to have a quality that impels people to use it in settings in which it has no meaning at all.
Examples of its meaningless use are:
The independence of the Teaching Hospitals and their freedom from the overall control of the Regional Boards.
The overall growth of London should be restrained.
Radical changes will be necessary in the general scheme of Exchequer grants in aid of local authorities, therefore, to secure that overall the policy of the Government in concentrating those grants as far as possible where the need is greatest is further developed. (Here, it will be observed, overall is an adverb.)
When an individual leaves an establishment, and his departure results in a net reduction of one in the overall strength.
It looks as if the yield for the first fortnight of 1949 will be fewer than forty fresh orders, representing an overall annual output of no more than a thousand.
The Controller should assume a general overall responsibility for the efficient planning of all measures.
When overall is not meaningless, it is commonly used as a synonym for some more familiar word, especially average, total and aggregate.
For aggregate:—Compared with the same week a year ago, overall production of coal showed an increase of more than 100,000 tons. [i.e. deep-mined plus opencast.]
For in all or altogether:—Overall the broadcasting of "Faust" will cover eight hours.
For total:—I have made a note of the overall demand of this company for the next year.
For average:—The houses here are built to an overall density of three to the acre.
For supreme:—Vice-Admiral Duncan, of the United States Navy, was in overall command.
For on the whole:—The Secretary of State for the Colonies stated that the overall position in Malaya had greatly improved, although in some places it was still difficult.
For generally:—Small vital schemes of repair and adaptation which continually arise and must be dealt with irrespective of any attempt to improve overall hospital standards.
For overriding:—They came forward as witnesses because of the overall fear of being involved in a capital charge.
For comprehensive:—An overall plan for North Atlantic Defence measures was approved yesterday by the Defence Minister at the Hague.
For whole:—Mr. C. said he could quite understand that the Conservative Party were unwilling to look at the overall picture.
For bird's-eye:—Our observer will be in the control tower, where he will have an overall view of the aerodrome.
For complete:—One volume was published, but the overall plan was never finished.
For absolute:—The Conservatives will have an overall majority in the new Parliament.
For on balance:—The purpose of the plan is to enable a larger initial payment to be made and correspondingly lower payments subsequently, entailing an overall saving to the customer.
Overall, according to the dictionaries, means "including everything between the extreme points", as one speaks of the overall length of a ship. For this purpose it is useful, but it is high time that its excursions into the fields of other words were checked. So pervasive has the word become that it is a pleasant surprise to come across an old-fashioned general in such sentences as:
These reports may be used for obtaining a general picture of the efficiency of a given industry.
Although Europe's general deficit with the outside world fell by over $2 billion during 1949, its deficit with the United States fell hardly at all.
Most writers today would say "overall picture" and "overall deficit" almost automatically.
Percentage, Proportion, Fraction
Do not use the expression a percentage or a proportion when what you mean is some, as in:
This drug has proved of much value in a percentage of cases. The London Branch of the National Association of Fire Officers, which includes a proportion of station officers...
Here percentage and proportion pretend to mean something more than some, but do not really do so. They do not give the reader any idea of the number or proportion of the successful cases or station officers. One per cent is just as much " a percentage " as 99 per cent. So, for that matter, is 200 per cent.
Do not forget the simple words many, few and some; and use percentage or proportion only if you want to express not an absolute number but the relation of one number to another, and can give at least an approximate degree of exactitude; so that, though you may not be able to put an actual figure on the percentage or proportion, you can at any rate say "a high percentage", "a large proportion", "a low percentage", "a small proportion".
But fraction is different. It has become so common to use "only a fraction" in the sense of "only a small fraction" that it would be pedantry to object that 999/1000 is as much a fraction as 1/1000 just as it would certainly be pedantry to point out to anyone who says "He has got a temperature" that 98 degrees is just as much "a temperature" as 104.
Reaction has had a meteoric career, almost rivalling that of overall and target. It now seems to come naturally to an official writer, answering an enquiry where certain equipment can be bought, to end his letter:
Would you therefore communicate with the XY Co. Ltd., and let me have your reaction
Reaction may be properly used as a technical term of chemistry (the response of a substance to a reagent), of biology (the response of an organ of the body to an external stimulus), or of mechanics ("to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction"). One would think that was as much work as a word could reasonably be asked to do. Its present vogue means that a word which connotes essentially an automatic rather than an intellectual response is being used habitually to replace such words as opinion, views or impression. Never say "What is you reaction to this proposal?" instead of "what do you think of this proposal?" unless you wish to imply that the person you are questioning must answer instantly without reflection. Reaction's extension of its meaning was harmless at first, and even useful. One cannot quarrel with:
I suggest that Mr. X communicates with some of the firms named with a view to testing market reactions to his products.
But the further encroachments of the word should be discouraged because they blunt exactitude of meaning.
The preposition after reaction must be to, not on. It is permissible to say "His reaction to your letter was unfavourable". But it is not permissible to say "Your letter had an unfavourable reaction on him". To say that is to imply a belief that one of the meanings of reaction is effect.
This word is becoming dangerously popular, perhaps because it has a question-begging flavour. What is realistic is what the writer thinks sensible. A leading article in a certain journal recently said of a certain minister:
He made great play, as he has done before, with the word "realistic", which he is in danger of associating with anything he thinks.
Realistic is ousting words like sensible, practical, feasible, workmanlike. Everything nowadays seems to be either academic or realistic. The following examples are from a single issue of The Times:
(From the evidence of a witness before the Bank Rate Tribunal. ) The Corporation was morally bound to take up underwriting so long as the terms were realistic at the time of issue. (reasonable ).
(From a letter.) Lord Woolton made a most realistic observation when he suggested that the House of Lords should meet later. (sensible ).
(From a leading article.) It would be unrealistic not to recognise the special difficulties which the T.U.C. may have in giving evidence. (unimaginative ).
Only in the last example could the writer maintain that the word he used was as suitable as the one suggested in brackets.
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