Sunday, June 16, 2013

The need to avoid officious stock phrases when writing or speaking

I seem to recall posting this essay here two-and-a-half years ago but I thought it was high time posting it once again for the benefit of those who haven’t read it yet and for everybody else who’d like to get rid of the unpleasantly bureaucratic tone of their written and spoken English. (June 17, 2013)

Let’s face it: Bureaucrats, lawyers, and not a few academicians use a lot of officious stock phrases in both their written and spoken communication, among them “by virtue of,” “with reference to,” “in connection with,” “with regard to,” “in order to,” “with respect to,” “in line with,” and—perhaps the most irksome of them all—“this is to inform you that” for both bad and good news and everything in between. These phrases make their English sound so highhanded and even somewhat threatening, but we learn to tolerate them because they are actually part of their professional jargon.

The problem, however, is that through our repeated exposure to these stock phrases, they eventually creep into our own writing and speech without our even knowing it. Indeed, not a few of us in time begin to sound like bureaucrats, lawyers, and academicians ourselves even if we are not. We routinely appropriate their jargon not only in our conversations with our friends and coworkers but also in our job applications as well as in our own memos, letters, and reports. 

But should we really allow tradition and peer-group pressure to tyrannize us into making these officious stock phrases part of our own language? In business and in our personal lives, is it really not advisable and not desirable to speak in more concise, more pleasant, and friendlier English?

My answer to the first question is, of course, a big “No!”; to the second, a big "Yes, we absolutely need to do so!" We should shun those officious stock phrases and avoid them like the plague. As I explained in the essay below that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2004, we should always use the most concise and most forthright but friendly English phrases that can precisely convey our meaning. Indeed, our best bet for getting along with people and getting things done in the workplace and most everywhere else is not bureaucratic, lawyerly, or academic language but plain and simple English. (July 30, 2010)

Phrases desirable and phrases abstruse

We are going back to some grammar basics today because of an interesting e-mail that I received from a reader, Mr. Dante Quiba of Vallejo, California, who asked for my thoughts on certain words that were bugging him. He wondered which of them were advisable to use and which might have already fallen into disuse. They are “about,” “regarding,” “concerning,” “touching on,” “in terms of,” and “on account of.” I guess my answer to Dante will be of interest to all users and learners of English, so I am devoting this essay entirely to it.

As we know, the words Dante was asking about are very commonly used prepositions or prepositional phrases. They are those handy grammar devices in the English language that refer to things or relate them to one another. All of the six that Dante mentioned are, of course, still very much in use these days. The first four actually mean the same thing: “in connection with” or “on the subject of.” The shortest of them, “about,” is also the most natural and most forceful. It is arguably our best choice for informal statements that need to refer to something: “About our agreement last night, put it on hold until next week. I have second thoughts about some of the provisions.”

Regarding” and “concerning” have a mildly officious and legalistic undertone, but if that doesn’t bother us, we can use them freely in place of “about.” Feel how they sound: “Regarding your application for a loan, you may expect release in two weeks.” “We are writing concerning your daughter’s academic performance.” On the other hand, the phrase “touching on” is of very limited use, appropriate only in constructions like these two: “Touching on the subject of romance, he became a spellbinding speaker.” “It will help if you touch on the subject of overtime pay in your briefing.” By some quirk of the language, “touch on” seems to work only when it latches on to the phrase “the subject of.” We thus must avoid it if we can.

In terms of” (which means “considering”) and “on account of” (“because”) are also respectable—if a bit officious—prepositional phrases: “A time deposit is superior to a savings deposit in terms of interest income.” “We canceled the games on account of the inclement weather.” We must also note here that “in view of,” “owing to,” and “due to” can very well take the place of “on account of” in that second sentence; the choice really depends on what we do for a living and the company we keep. (Lawyers gravitate to “in view of” for their own reasons, but if you ask a non-lawyer like me, I’d much prefer to use “due to” most of the time.) 

More prepositional phrases abound that mean the same thing as “about,” but we are well advised to stay away from them. They are abstruse and can give our prose a false, awkward tone, particularly these five:

“in accordance with”
“in connection with”
“in conformance to”
“by reason of”
“as to.”

Two really obsolete ones, “apropos of” and “anent,” are best avoided altogether.

Then there are scores more of prepositional phrases that are too long-winded and legalistic for comfort; we should make it a point of honor to always replace them with their more concise equivalents. Here are some of them with their no-nonsense counterparts:

“at such time” (“when”)
“at that point in time” (“then,” “now”)
“by means of” (“by”)
“by virtue of” (“by,” “under”)
“despite the fact that” (“although”)
“due to the fact that” (“because”)
“during the course of,” “in the course of” (“during”) \
“for the amount of” (“for”)
“for the purpose of” (“for,” “under”)
“from the point of view of” (“from,” “for”)
“in order to” (“to”)
“in a manner similar to” (“like”)
“in excess of” (“more than,” “over”)
“in favor of” (“for”)
“in relation to” (“about,” “concerning”)
“in the nature of” (“like”)
“in the immediate vicinity of” (“near”)
“in close proximity to” (“near”)
“in the present” (“now”)
“on one occasion” (“once”)
“on the basis of” (“by,” “from”)
“subsequent to” (“after”)
 “until such time as” (“until”)
“with a view to” (“to”)
“with reference to” (“about,” “concerning”)
“with regard to” (“about,” “concerning”)
“with respect to” (“about,” “concerning”)

And while we are at it, we should also mercilessly eliminate from our personal and official correspondence the following prepositional clich├ęs on sight:

“acknowledge receipt of”
“it has come to my attention”
“at this writing”
“attached thereto”
“receipt is hereby acknowledged”
“please be advised that”
“enclosed herewith”
“thank you in advance”

and—as I suggested avoiding in an earlier column—“more power to you!”

If there’s one rule we should live by in the use of prepositional phrases, it is to choose the most concise and most forthright but friendly ones that can precisely convey our meaning. (March 15, 2004)
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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 15, 2004, © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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