I am sure you know somebody who has one or two pet phrases that occur once or twice in every few sentences he speaks. These phrases vary according to the part of the country and the social environment of the individual. You may have noticed that when television reporters interview people on the streets of London, there are usually one or two who insert ‘I mean’ or ‘I mean to say’ several times in the course of the interview:
‘I mean to say, I mean, I don’t hold with that at all, I mean. I mean it doesn’t make sense. After all, I mean, if you were in that position, if. you were in that position, I mean, if it was you, you yourself, I mean, you wouldn’t, I mean you wouldn’t, would you, I mean.’
The repetition isn’t often as frequent as that. I don’t mean that it is, I mean. There was, how ever, a recent TV interview of which that is a fair impression.
‘As it were’, ‘so to speak’, ‘well’ — these are other common addictions of the kind.
The same kind of thing is likely to happen in writing and just as the speaker does not hear himself uttering his ‘I mean’, so the writer may not notice that he has become the victim of the pet phrase addiction. Watch out for the pet phrases, and stamp them out before they get a hold of you. They are an irritation to the reader, and, remember, what happens in the reader’s mind is more important than what happens in yours.
The first word I warn you against is ‘concerned’. It is first on my list merely because ‘as far as . . . . is concerned’ or ‘so far as. . . . is concerned’ became at one time a habit-phrase with me.
Here is a sentence in which ‘as far as. . . . was concerned’ is superfluous:
‘The weather made no difference as far as the standard of play was concerned.’
There are too many words chasing one little idea here.
Why not? — ‘The weather made no difference to the standard of play.’ or ‘The weather did not affect the standard of play.’
‘The standard of play was high in spite of the bad weather.’
‘In spite of the bad weather most of the players returned excellent scores.’
There are so many right ways!
The last version is probably the best. I am assuming that the game referred to is golf, since it is a sport in which play is especially likely to be affected by the weather.
The reason why the last version is probably the best is that it is closer to facts. The sentence would never have been written in any form at all if the weather had not been such as to affect the scores. It is hardly conceivable that every single score was affected by the weather. The final version allows for that and says just about as much as can be said with the information avail able.
I would point out that ‘concern’ is not a ‘bad word’. ‘Our concern here is with We are here concerned chiefly with. . . .‘ These uses are perfectly acceptable.
Next to the word ‘it’, ‘that’ is in my opinion the most awkward word in the English language. It can be the source of many difficulties in sentence construction.
Look at the number of ‘thats’ in this sentence:
‘You may think that ‘that’ is so simple and harmless a word that you can never go wrong with it, but the fact is that that same little word can lead to so many complications in a sentence that you will often find that the only thing to do is to delete what you have written and start again.’
Even short sentences can be cluttered up with ‘thats’:
‘The reason for that advice was that it is a phrase that is often used wrongly.’
‘That advice was given because the phrase is often used wrongly.’
A pernicious little word, and I don’t say that because facts so often turn out to be something else. My objection to it is that it is so often the centre of a little cluster of verbiage.
‘We must never forget the fact that. . is far better put in this way
‘We must never forget that. . . .’
‘If it had not been for the fact that his illness occurred at that time . . . .’
‘If he had not been ill at that time . . . .’
My advice then is to look twice at the word ‘fact’ whenever you find you have written it and ask yourself whether it is really necessary.
Ration your negative statements. Positive ones are as a rule more direct and result in sentences that are grammatically simpler. If you let yourself become involved with ‘nots’, you may find yourself demanding intellectual acrobatics from your reader that he is not prepared to try. Here is a sentence which is in its way almost a work of art- perverse art:
‘There is not the slightest doubt that if Goodliffe were not so erratic he could not be regarded as second to any player in the world.’
The curious thing is that people can read through a sentence like that and understand quite clearly what the writer means to say — until they try to disentangle it. They can only do so by ignoring some of the words in the sentence.
Rewrite the following sentences in the light of what you have read in this article.
1. As concerns the criticism that the notice of the meeting was too short, the only answer can be that more office help is needed so that the paper-work can be done in time.
2. The magistrate announced that he felt so strongly about the disturbance that that manner of behaviour would in future be treated as contempt of court.
3. None of the policemen expected trouble and were taken by surprise when the scrap escalated into a riot.
4. To increase the fruiting powers of these trees by this pruning system it is not enough that they should be pruned once but several times during the season.
5. He said that he stood by the fact that the objections he made now could not be said to be anything but the same as the ones that he had made last time.
6. But for the fact that the weather was unsettled we could not say that our holiday was any less enjoyable than last year.
7. As concerns the latest reports that there was some doubt that storm-damage had affected rail- communication, there is no reason to suppose that it was so destructive that it could be expected that the train would be ten hours late.
8. He did not neglect to point out that there was no need for anyone not to be aware of that particular regulation.
9. The policeman took no notice of the fact that the sign saying that parking was prohibited was so obscured by overhanging branches that it might as well have not been there for that purpose.
10. My time-table was so elastic that even that sudden change of date made very little difference to my plans as far as! was concerned.
1. There is a simple answer to the criticism that the notice about the meeting was not sent out in time — shortage of office-staff.
2. The magistrate said he felt so strongly about the disturbance that he would treat any recurrence of that sort of behaviour as contempt of court.
3. The police, who were not expecting trouble, were taken by surprise when the scrap developed into a riot.
Note: The grammar of the original sentence suggests that none of the police were surprised. My version has a weakness that is not easily avoided because of the form of the original sentence. The police ought really to be shown to have been surprised by the ‘scrap’ even before it developed into a riot. Keep ‘escalated’ if you like.
4. With this system, one pruning in the season is not enough; regular pruning throughout the season is necessary for increasing the fruiting power of the trees.
Note: The grammar of the original suggests that even ‘several times’ is not enough.
5. Note: It is quite possible that this sentence is accurate reporting. What he actually did say may be given here in indirect speech. It’s the roundabout way some people have of speaking when they become involved with negative statements. The form required is:
He said that his present objections were the same as those he had put forward last time.
6. In spite of the unsettled weather, we had as good a holiday as we had last year.
7. This one is a real mix-up. ‘Some doubt that’ should, of course, be ‘some doubt whether’.
‘That’ is used after ‘doubt’ only in the negative F ‘no doubt’, e.g., ‘There is no doubt that…’
The best I can do with this piece of contorted language, however, is this:
The latest reports suggest that some damage may have been caused to the railway line. The train, however, is not likely to be as much as (or ‘more than’) ten hours late.
8. He pointed out that everybody had had an opportunity of knowing about that regulation.
9. The policeman made no allowance for the fact that the ‘no parking’ sign was obscured by overhanging branches.
10. I was so little tied down to particular times that the sudden change of date made little difference to my plans.