Time to trim the linguistic flab from our vocab | Whale’s Tales

I have been thinking about phrases that we use without considering what they actually imply down deep, or whether they are necessary at all.

I have been thinking about phrases that we use without considering what they actually imply down deep, or whether they are necessary at all.

Linguists call these “implicatures.” The ones below are just a sampling of the plug-uglies that have vexed me over the years.

“So, I looked him right in his eye…”

Have you ever noticed how seldom we talk about looking the other guy right in the “eyes?” That is, in both eyeballs. What gives? Don’t most of us come with two of ‘em? Where’s the other? As an old friend used to say, “perspiring mimes want to know more.” On this hangs a tale.

“Not too shabby.”

Each time I hear this reply to “how ya doing,” or “how’s business,” or “how’s the house coming along,” it implies the existence of a “shabby continuum.” If that’s true, it’s gotta be possible to exceed an implied, socially-accepted, upper limit for shabby.

An over abundance is easy to imagine. Just think of that gross kid whom you sat behind in the eighth grade. What’s harder to figure out is how one’s shabbiness could fall below the mark. What would it mean to be shabby challenged?

Doctor: “Mrs Queedle, I am sorry to say your Poindexter is suffering from critically low ShB.”

Mother: (wringing her hands) “My son?! Oh, no, that’s terrible, just terrible! Is there hope?”

“It was lying in the middle of the road…”

This is another commonplace phrase, as in, for example: “Police found a man in the middle of the road.” The use of “the road” here, as opposed to “a road” seems to imply that the reader — no matter where he or she may be — knows the road so well that actually going to the trouble to name it is unnecessary.

“The strategy is centered around…”

This throws me into a such full-blown geometric crisis that only a hasty retreat to an old geometry textbook I have stowed away in a cupboard, just for this problem, can restore me to my previous calm. The one I’ve got reassures me that yes ,indeed, things must center “in” something, not “around it,” which is, you know, a bit of a logical absurdity. Like positing an inside without an outside.

“It is located at…”

Really? A simple “It is at” such and such an address will suffice. Another bit of linguistic flab.

“In the middle of the air…”

Ever since I first heard this one in a church hymn when I was a little kid, it has bothered me. The phrase appeared to imply sides of the air,” and a bottom and a top of the air. I remember asking my mother, “Mom, where’s the middle of the air?” I don’t remember her answer, but it was probably something along the lines of, “Don’t ask silly questions,” or “Go ask your dad.” Whatever it was, it failed to satisfy my childhood curiosity.

“At the moment, I am currently working on…”

How many more ways can we find to say “now?” This one is more about excess in writing or speaking, but I thought I’d toss it in the mix to sort of cleanse the pallet. It just annoys the hell out of me.

“Sometimes I always feel…”

To quote Charlie Brown: aggrrrhhhggg! Right? Either you “sometimes” feel, or you always feel. Can’t be both at the same time.

Got any phrases that grind your gears? Send ‘em on in. I’d love to hear them.

Robert Whale can be reached at robert.whale@soundpublishing.com.