Mea Culpa: a dystopian future of filler phrases all over the world

Questions of style and usage in this week’s Independent

John Rentoul@JohnRentoul
Friday 17 May 2019 16:18
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Russell T Davies’s ‘Years and Years’ prompted a timely question
Russell T Davies’s ‘Years and Years’ prompted a timely question

“Global” is a word that should be used with care. Perhaps I have been sensitised to it by the government slogan, “Global Britain”, which may have been intended to suggest an outward-looking, free-trading, post-Brexit nation. That now seems more quaint than annoying, but the word often strikes a wrong note.

We described Seattle as a city “whose core activities shake the world – through technology, philanthropy or global development”. If “global development” means the city’s effect on the world economy, that is mostly covered by “technology”; and if it means aid to the developing world, that is probably covered by “philanthropy”.

In an article about climate change, we said that the last time CO2 concentrations were this high was during the Pliocene, when “global sea levels were at least 25m higher”. The thing about the seas and oceans is that they are almost all connected to each other (in the current Holocene epoch, the Aral, Caspian, Galilee, Dead and Salton seas are not).

At least the only time we mentioned the “global community” was when we were quoting someone.

Prosthetic limbs: George Orwell had a weird term for filler phrases that make sentences longer than they need to be. He called them “verbal false limbs”, and gave as examples: “make contact with”, “give rise to” and “have the effect of”. I don’t know why he called them that, but we know what he means.

Another that can usually be dispensed with is “in order to”. A computer search reveals that we used it 35 times in the last week. In most cases, a simple “to” would have sufficed. We said Tom Dumoulin, who fell off his bike in the Giro d’Italia, may “decide to retire from the race in order to concentrate on July’s Tour de France”.

And in an article about the dangers of charcoal toothpaste – not for me, thank you – we wrote: “Calcium and phosphate are also needed in order to strengthen enamel.”

We do have to be careful, though, because there are times when “in order to” helps to make it clear what the “to” means. In a review of Game of Thrones, for example, we said of Arya Stark, “she rebelled once again, leaving them in order to retrieve her identity and return home”. Without “in order”, it might read as if it were the “them” who were retrieving her identity.

Imaginary bad places: Sean O’Grady asked an interesting question in his review of Years and Years, Russell T Davies’s drama set in the near future: “Why does no one ever talk about ‘the dystopian past’?”

The future is often dystopian in fiction, but the word has become overused. It was coined by John Stuart Mill in 1868, in a speech in the House of Commons, to mean “imaginary bad place”, from the Greek prefix dys–, “bad, abnormal, difficult”, and “utopia”, a word invented by Thomas More – as a Greek pun, meaning no place and good place – three and a half centuries earlier.

Apparently, Mill’s point was that utopianism never worked out well, and that schemes to create a perfect world tend to make things worse. Sounds like a rather conservative argument to me. Perhaps we should ditch dystopian as an adjective and simply describe the hellish futures that our great dramatists imagine for us.

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