Globe Insiders

To Grammar’s House

Time for a fall cleaning

AP Photo/Coeur d'Alene Press, Jerome A. Pol

“To Grammar’s House”is a regular column by the Boston Globe copy desk on the style and language used in the newspaper.

Last year Grammar's House undertook some overdue spring cleaning, sweeping out  a number of antiquated rules that seemed capricious, spurious, or in some cases erroneous. Now perhaps it's time for some fall cleaning, a sweeping out of some overused phrases that are hackneyed, counterfactual, or otherwise undesirable.

There are many idioms that have entered our vocabulary that we appreciate and admire, others not so much. <---- How that one, for example, nosed its way into our lexicon is unclear, but it sure would be nice to show it the exit. Grammar's House's main objection is the way it's almost never parallel to what precedes it, which makes it perpendicular, or perhaps oblique or tangential, but in any case even more awkward than a math analogy in a grammar column.

Sometimes it seems there's a disconnect between what is grammatically correct and what is dubious but considered acceptable simply because it's been repeated so often. Such is the case with "disconnect," a verb that has been increasingly used as a noun since sometime around 1980. Its intended meaning --  an inability to mentally reconcile two or more things, an inability of two or more parties to understand one another, or, more generally, a gap -- is perfectly conveyed by the more than serviceable words  "disconnection" or "disparity." Why so many writers reach instead for the awkward-sounding and abruptly ending "disconnect" is something that's difficult to reconcile.


Have you ever read a story whose author -- wait for it --  issued instructions or commands to you, the reader, personally? Think obtrusive, irritating, and condescending. Let's agree to not do that anymore, OK? Enough said about those constructions.

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One of the problems with having journalists on the ground in foreign countries, embedded in military units, is their ensuing propensity to employ military jargon in the stories they file.  Hence the seemingly ceaseless references to troops on the ground, boots on the ground, or anything on the ground, for that matter. In almost every case, anything "on the ground" could just as easily be described without the extraneous prepositional phrase, which adds absolutely nothing.  And for practical purposes, let's send actual soldiers overseas, not just their boots. And finally, when they get there, let's just stipulate that they're going to be on the ground, since as far as we know they haven't been able to accomplish the miracle of hovering yet. 

On television's "Happy Days,"  a waterskiing Fonzie jumped the shark that suddenly appeared in his path, saving himself from being eaten but unwittingly adding to our vocabulary an idiom used to identify the precise moment when something that was good begins its slow decline into something not so good. Some 35 years later, Grammar's House would like to suggest, that idiom has jumped itself.

Sometimes the conditions that give rise to hackneyed expressions combine to create a perfect storm for bad writing. When that's the case, the careful writer might want to get out of the weather and choose another combination of words. 

But that begs the question: How many writers use the phrase "begs the question" correctly? The answer is an unfortunately minuscule number. Begging the question is a logical fallacy in which an assertion is backed up by a premise that presumes the truth of the very assertion that it is trying to prove. It does not mean "raises the question" or "begs that the following question be asked." Here, of course,  Grammar's House is calling for banning only the incorrect use of that phrase, not its correct usage. 


If it seems as if there's been a meteoric rise in the number of hackneyed phrases you run across every day, it could be because they become exponentially more irritating the more often you see them, and that irritation, in turn, tends to  make  you notice them even more. It's a vicious circle. Especially when they don't make any sense. Besides being overused,  the aforementioned phrase takes a legitimate adjective (meteoric, meaning spectacular but brief) and then points it in the wrong direction entirely. Meteors don't rise, they fall. Furthermore, let's not forget the "brief" part of the equation. To be truly meteoric, the person with the meteoric success would have to quickly burn out, or fail. If he or she is still on top, choose another word.  If he or she has indeed fallen back to earth, why not simply mention his or her meteoric career, rather than the confounding meteroric rise to the top? One doesn't have to think outside the box to see why these phrases are so vexing. In fact, if a writer uses that sorely overused phrase, one thing is clear: He or she  is definitely still in the box.

Nevertheless, it is what it is. After all, if it isn't what it is, then it must be something else entirely, and one would have to say "it isn't what it is" or "it is what it isn't," both of which are more than a little unsettling -- but at least worth mentioning.

 At the end of the day, if a story includes the phrase "at the end of the day," Grammar's House is tempted to disregard everything in that story from the morning right through the afternoon and into the evening. But then again, there are exceptions to every rule. 

Daniel Coleman is a production editor on the Globe’s copy desk.