Mea Culpa: One of the great social ills of our time

John Rentoul on questions of style and usage in last week’s Independent

Saturday 01 August 2020 22:22
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Does the PM’s anti-obesity drive have legs? Only time will tell...
Does the PM’s anti-obesity drive have legs? Only time will tell...

Many thanks to Zak Thomas for minding the shop while I was away. He prosecuted the campaigns against “ongoing”, “amid” and “it comes as” with suitably inquisitorial vigour.

Banned list update: Quite often I declare that a word is so confusing or ugly or useless that it should never be used, only to have someone point out some perfectly valid sentence in which it might be needed, or, worse, to find myself saying the word in speech. Thus there are only a few words I would ban outright, including decimate, utilise and iconic.

However, along comes another: societal. We don’t need it. Just as utilise is a long way of saying use, societal just seems an academic jargon way of saying social. I think it means “relating to a whole society”, in which case there is always a better way. Last week a comment article described terrorism as “a societal problem” and urged that governments should treat it accordingly. I think the author meant that terrorists rarely operate entirely alone.

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