Tuesday, 21 July 2015


In the Guardian, ages ago now, Stephen Poole defended 'basically' against the charges brought against it by Harris Academy in Upper Norwood:* 
The case of "basically" is similar to that of "obviously", also regularly dismissed as vapid huffery. I once worked at a newspaper where an editor sought to eliminate all use of "obviously" from the pages, on the grounds that, as he wrote: "If it's obvious, there's no need to say it."
This sounds pithily convincing until you consider common rhetorical strategies. Very often, it helps to state the obvious before moving on to more debatable claims that you will argue follow from it. To signal this, one may preface the statement with the word "Obviously", as an economical way of saying: "I know you know this, for it is obvious, and you are no fool, but the rest of my argument depends on our agreeing on this, so I beg your indulgence for stating it at the beginning; if you can be patient just a little longer, I promise I will at length have something more interesting to say." In this way, the use of "obviously", like that of "basically", is a little show of deference, a drop of conversational lubricant.
This kind of thing catches my eye when I mark essays. I always, without fail, cross out words like basically, obviously and so on, for the same reason Poole attributes to his editor. In my opinion (and it is just my opinion, as it's a style choice, even though I'm obviously right), these words do not belong in formal academic writing at all. I wonder if this is a reflection of linguistic style. In some disciplines, I think rhetorical flourishes are prized but linguistics likes a very pared-down, spare style, with no fiddle-faddle. To linguists, elegance means simplicity. That means that everything included is there for a reason, and so you don't need obviously in the way Poole describes it.

*For a comment on the idiotic and unnecessary re-spelling of woz in their poster, see this post.

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