So…that’s a great question…let’s listen!

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It may be my imagination (or a symptom of advancing age), but the devolution of the English language seems to have accelerated over the past decade. Business English, of course, has spawned its own abominations: the infamous reunion-friendly cliché of “Let’s go back” (something that experience tells us never actually happens) and its bastard siblings, verbal nonsense such as “set level”, ” move the needle” and “corporate culture” are now so universally hated that they could easily be parodied in a sequel to Office space.

Much of the blame for bad office language can be placed on the technological revolution. “Solutions”, probably the most common marketing word at the start of the millennium (as in “enterprise solutions”, “solutions for your business” or “the leader in IT solutions”) seems to have finally, thankfully, succumbed to a painfully tedious death, though it still appears occasionally, much like that old creature from the Lagoon, in print and television advertisements. For example, “wealth management solutions” are still around, occupying an obnoxious class on their own.

But the chatter of political news on television produces its own unique set of mundane buzzwords, some of which have seeped into other areas of conversational discourse. There are several, but three in particular tend to annoy me when I hear them. Two of them (“So…” and “That’s a great question”) occur mostly in the context of interviews conducted for journalists, but have now seeped into other aspects of human relations, such as speeches and presentations. The other monstrosity (“Take a listen”) is exclusively the domain of news anchors, most often aimed at the watching audience when a music video of something is broadcast.

We’ll start with “So…” because it’s ubiquitous and the least boring. It most often appears when a speaker is asked a question, but instead of answering the question itself, instead decides to make a statement first. It seems to serve two functions. First, it gives the speaker an extra second to collect their thoughts. Second, it usually alerts the listener that an explanation is forthcoming (as opposed to a direct answer to the question being asked). It doesn’t make sense on its own (in this context we’re supposed to treat it like a distant cousin, twice distant from a conjunction, I guess) but just fills in dead time and air.

EXAMPLE:

WOLF BLITZER: Did the former president lie when he said he declassified the documents himself?

TRUMP ATTORNEY: So…the former president, Wolf, never said he declassified documents…

“So” is used this way because it sounds better than “Um”, “Good” or “Err…”, but it also apparently serves as a conversation management tool. As noted dictionary.com:

This use of then assumes a certain level of engagement in the discussion. The speaker assumes that the listener is engaged enough to connect the following words then at an earlier point in the conversation.

But it’s an escape. A speaker shouldn’t have to convey the fact that “yes, he heard your question”, nor to affirm – via “so”, “good” or another monosyllabic grunt – that you expect an answer. Since using “So…” to precede a response has gained such popularity (it’s a particular favorite of company spokespersons and press officers), I’m pretty resigned to the fact that its existence for the rest of my time on the planet. However, perhaps future generations in a world we cannot yet imagine will finally recognize that it has exactly no meaning.

The next piece of meaningless modern jargon is when a speaker responds by first saying “That’s a great question”. I used to get a shiver of happiness running down my spine when I first heard this in response to a question I asked, but I now realize that in an interpersonal context it doesn’t matter. makes no sense. Because if it wasn’t a “big question”, I probably wouldn’t have wasted my time asking it in the first place. What if I’m in an audience and we’re all asking a speaker about something, does the fact that someone else’s question is flagged by the speaker as a “big” question make my question pitiful previous simply below standard? And what is the difference between a “good” question and an “excellent” one?

Half the time I hear someone say they asked a “good question”, I’m completely lost as to why that was so “great”. What I’ve finally concluded after years of studying this phenomenon is that a “big question” usually boils down to a question that the speaker is actually able to answer.

EXAMPLE:

ME: Will that exorbitant amount of tuition also include a meal plan so my child doesn’t starve?

ADMISSIONS COUNSELOR: That’s a great question. No, the meal plan will incur an additional charge.

The worst part of this nothing-speak is that it can be inserted at the beginning or end of an answer. Sometimes, much to my dismay, I’m even told, “That’s a great question…(insert long answer)…Really a great question, though!” »

But the most atrocious of these contemporary verbal conventions is the one that seems to have first poked its head CNN (I searched high and low for its antecedent in any other context and found nothing): the infamous”Listen. As observed by Valerie Strauss, writing in 2016 for the Washington Post, this sentence simply means:

If you listen to the news – pretty much any channel – it probably won’t take you more than a few minutes to hear someone say “listen” and then switch to a video. I know this isn’t one of the big (or even small) problems in the world, and it’s nothing new, but I cringe when I hear it. I’m not the only one.

Strauss quotes Grammarphobia blog, which probably sums up my impressions of this use better than anything I could find:

Q: On CNN, all anchors use the phrase “listen” instead of just “listen” or “listen to this”. Does that sound as caustic to you as it does to me?

A: We don’t know the caustic, but it certainly sounds bloated, condescending and lame. We could go on, but quote the entry of this “infantile phrase” in The Dimwit Dictionary (2nd ed.), By Robert Hartwell Fiske:

“As senseless as it is insulting, have (take) a listen obviously does not say anything Listen alone does not. Journalists and media personalities who use this offensive phrase should be silenced; businessmen, graduates; officials, pilloried.

(emphasis ours)

“Take a listen” is, of course, marginally derived from the phrase “take a look”, which is a common and accepted idiom, meaning to concentrate on something. Maybe one day it will become so commonplace that I can hear it without “grinding my teeth”, as Strauss says, but I doubt it. I don’t like the cheap familiarity it conveys; I feel like I’m being cajoled by someone who hasn’t taken the time to learn to express themselves and who therefore decides to address me as a two-year-old child.

“Listen carefully…” Blech!

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