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In terms of badly used English

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 5 July 2013

A few years ago, my pet hates in the English language were narrowly defined. They were the handful of words and phrases football star David Beckham typically uttered when reporters courageously interviewed him. ‘You know’, ‘like’ and my personal favourite, ‘like, you know’ were chief among them.

While such sloppy use of language was annoying, at least no one could have scolded Mr Beckham for using pompous language to elevate himself to an intellectual or a moral high ground.

Nowadays, the most annoying phrases in English come across as pompous and meaningful – but they are just as void and superfluous.

The main culprit in this category is the ubiquitous expression ‘in terms of’. It is one of those phrases you may not have thought about much – but once you do, you will see and hear it everywhere. And it becomes a little more maddening each time.

There are very few occasions that genuinely warrant the use of ‘in terms of’. You may use it to express a thought in an academic discipline (if you are inclined to use jargon), or to indicate the measurements you are using.

In all other cases, please do yourself and your audience a favour and avoid the phrase!

“New Zealand is ranked sixth globally in terms of gender equality” (Stuff.co.nz) would read better as “New Zealand is ranked sixth globally in gender equality”.

Or take this example from an interview in The New Zealand Herald: “Books of course are, in terms of attention, competing with movies, music videos, online games and all the rest of it”. Shouldn’t this simply be rewritten with ‘competing for attention’?

‘In terms of’ may sound elaborate and educated, however, it is just careless. It is the sophisticated person’s equivalent of ‘like, you know’.

There is only one thing worse ‘in terms of’ annoyance potential: ‘to be honest.’

Anyone who deems it necessary to preface every second thought with a seemingly disarming ‘to be honest’ immediately arouses my suspicion. If someone believes it is necessary to stress their moments of candour, I’d rather not imagine what they really mean at other times. Be honest or leave it – but don’t go adding the qualifier every time you say something.

I would have never thought I would say it, but the current trends of abusing the beautiful English language almost make me yearn for David Beckham interviews.

PS: While we are at it, ‘impact’ is a noun, not a verb.

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