Friday, June 10, 2011

Still Life with Robin: No Way with Words

by Peggy Robin

I have noticed certain phrases popping up fairly frequently, and apropos of nothing in particular, thought I'd take this hot day to spout off about what’s wrong with the three expressions below, all of which are used when one person is about to offer advice to another. These are all things people say when they hope to get someone to change their thinking, but which, in my view, are not only ineffective, but in fact, counter-productive.

The first is any criticism that begins, “No offense, but….” What follows is, in virtually all cases, something that does, in fact, offend. If you want people to change something about themselves, it’s not a good strategy to start out by telling them that what you are about to suggest could well be taken as an insult, though that is not your motive. In other words, you are putting the thought in their head, even before you get into the substance of your comment, that an offensive thought is coming. The target of this phrase might consider a move to cut the speaker off the instant that “but” is uttered, by saying, “Let me stop you right there and ask what is the general subject matter of the advice you’re about to give me. If it has anything to do with my personal appearance, my health, or my private life, I think it doesn’t matter that you have no desire to offend; I’d just as soon not hear it, thanks.”

The second phrase I find a waste of words is any directive to someone else to “think outside the box.” In general, it’s not a good idea to start out telling someone else, not just what to think, but how to think. Consider, too, that different people have different perspectives on what constitutes “the box.” In addition, it’s not always good to be "outside the box," when for example, the box in question is a set of ethical principles, or the safety margin, or the confines of logic, biology, or physics. So the next time someone tells you to “think outside the box,” you might want to respond, “Which box? You tell me how you define the box in this instance, and I’ll tell you whether I think this cliché has any applicability to this situation.”

The third phrase that I find always makes a bad opening argument, is “Get a life.” Saying that simply belittles the person’s life. As to the possibility that someone who’s been told to “get a life” would, in a sudden epiphany, realize that “everything I find important and worthwhile is actually worthless, and I need to completely refocus my existence, as this person has suggested” – well, that just doesn’t happen. What does happen is that the person who says “Get a life” gets to feel superior, although perhaps only as long as it takes the recipient of the advice to think of a snappy comeback. Or even a not-so-snappy retort, such as, “I have a life that I find perfectly satisfactory, and even more so the instant you leave the room.”


Are there any trite phrases that drive you up the wall (speaking of cliches)? Please feel free to vent about them here.


  1. My least favorite phrase is when someone starts a sentence with "Me and..." I used to think this expression involved someone named Meehan. I've never met Meehan, but apparently a lot of people have. Kids say "Meehan my friend went to the movies". I'm a real meanie and until I meet this Meehan, I don't let my kids talk about him/her. It started off as a kid expression, but now I hear adults say "Me and" - didn't their parents teach them to mention the other person first? ~ nora

  2. Similar to what "Anonymous 9:38 AM" says above, I can't stand it when someone says something like, "...and attending the function were Joe, Sue and MYSELF." Why not just "ME?"

    Other linguistic pet peeves of mine is constant use of the phrase, "you know?" or constantly using some other of "filler" words/phrases while speaking. It's probably most annoying to me when the "fillers" end up being 4-letter words, but other "filler" words/phrases also can really grate on my ears (and nerves).

    One case in point was that of a former Chair/President of the DCPS School Board. This lady was notorious for making extremely frequent use of "filler" words/phrases such as, "um" and "ah, ah, ah."

    I just never quite understood how a public official, who happened to be the Chair/President of the school board, barely could get through a single sentence without using one or both of those "filler" words/phrases. (I guess it also didn't help that she was kind of a "monotone," but that's a story for another day.)

    For anyone who ever attended a DCPS school board meeting in parson, or who watched one on TV, I think it would've been hard to overlook that fact that it was a common occurrence for this person to use "filler" material several times in less than a one-minute period.

    So, at one very boring school board meeting, I decided to give up on trying to distract myself every time she used a "filler" word or phrase, and instead to count them, just to see how many times they were used.

    I ended up counting as many sixteen occurrences in a one-minute period, and after I had counted (and tallied) the "filler" usage over several one-minute periods, I no longer was bored. Rather, I had become quite amused to the point that it all became quite humorous to me. Suddenly, I had all I could to do contain myself from chortling loudly.

    Although I briefly had to leave the hearing room to regain my composure, I do have to say that it ended up being one of the most entertaining DCPS school board meetings I'd ever attended!