The Leaping Sort-Of

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By Scott Ross

Sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the critic John Simon wrote a piece decrying the increasing incidence in American speech of what he called “the Creeping ‘You-Know’.” That it is back, and with a vengeance, can be affirmed to one’s sorrow if one spends any amount of time near, or at least in earshot of, Millennials. I suspect generalities… er, generally… but it seems, sadly, to be a truism that those under 30 sprinkle enough “you know”s into their conversation, casual and formal, to send the heartiest of seasoned grammarians into cardiac arrest. Where this lazy reliance on conversative filler — for that is what all those “you know”s represent — came from, or why it lay dormant for a generation or two before resurfacing to re-pollute the sea of communication I do not know.

Those of us who came of age in the 1970s have, as a generation, more than our share of faults, among them a deplorable social and political complacency that, at its worst, not only ushered in the era of Reagan but buoyed up the appalling ignorance with which his putatively liberal Democrat successors have fed the ravening beast of uncompromising neoliberalism and which, thanks to the Clintons and Mr. Obama, have helped render America’s middle class poor, its poor destitute, and its rich wealthier than at any time since what Mark Twain with exquisite irony called The Gilded Age. And while the rape of the language runs a poor second to these excesses, I do not recall the brightest of us groping so aggressively, and helplessly, when putting our thoughts into words. That’s the thing: In my experience it is the brightest, and best educated among Millennials, whose throats are most commonly throttled by the Creeping You-Know.

Among the British — and, I must admit with sorrow, increasingly here — the Creeping You-Know has been superseded by what I call The Leaping Sort-Of. In a recent interview on the Real News network — one of the very few genuinely reliable sources currently operating in this our post-Telecommunications Act of 1996 world with its attendant vilification (when not outright crushing) of such actual journalism as still exists — the redoubtable Aaron Maté engaged in colloquy with the Oxford historian Eskandar Sadeghi concerning the house-of-mirrors belligerence of the Trump Administration toward Iran. As if the clips Maté includes in his twin segments of Mike Pompeo’s hilarious deflection (Iran, not the United States, is “the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism”) and the withering specter of an American Secretary of State threatening another sovereign nation like a schoolyard bully drunk on confiscated Juicy-Juice were not risible enough, Sadeghi’s commentary is littered with enough meaningless “sort of”s to offer succor to those among us, if such there be, who habitually complain that the educated speak too clearly for comprehension.

The Leaping Sort-Of (along with its twin, The Pouncing Kind-Of) as it is currently constituted is a beast almost beyond comprehension. The people interviewed on television and video, and indeed those conducting the interviews, are supposed to be (even if they rarely are) aside from knowledgeable, intelligent and articulate… or at least as articulate as their viewers. While Maté is unusually poised and articulate, as indeed are a number of less celebrated (and, correspondingly, compensated) young voices on the progressive left such as the British Gordon Dimmack and the Canadian David Doel — his guest on this segment is, seemingly, incapable of making a simple declarative statement without muddying the linguistic waters by adding “sort of” to every noun or verb he utters. Sadeghi, in common with so many under the sway of The Leaping Sort-Of, has absolutely no awareness that he habitually undercuts his own otherwise cogent political analysis by his adamant refusal to come down conclusively on any point. There are, indeed, segments of his conversation with Maté in which he, dizzyingly, clusters as many as a half-dozen “sort of”s into a single sentence.

I don’t mean to pillory Sadeghi exclusively; he just happens to be the last victim of The Leaping Sort-Of I heard today. But the “selective part of an Arabic document” (he means of course selected; it was he who excerpted it who was selective) is not made any more concrete in its citation by being a “sort of selective part,” especially when it is used to “sort of imply that Iran had a long-established relationship with Al-Qaeda.” No. It either was a part of a document or it was not. It was either used to draw that inference or it wasn’t. There is no limbo area here.

Uttering “sort of” in this way, and doing so with such stuttering habitualness, does not bespeak nuance or care. It suggests that you are somehow terrified of making a simple declarative statement. And one is left to wonder why. Especially since very few of these types would ever write or publish a sentence as slovenly or ill-considered as the inconclusive rubbish they speak. Perhaps they have simply never spent a moment listening to themselves, or reflecting on how they sound to others.

And if they haven’t, then why in Hell should we listen to them?


Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

Why can’t Johnny (and Janie) write?

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Note: A couple of nights ago I saw a chilling bit of video in which high school students confess they know nothing about American civics. That’s frightening enough. To add a little frisson of horror, one of them pronounced the word “Senate” as “Senay.” Draw your own conclusions.

By Scott Ross

The notion, idealistic if not indeed romantic, that education implied literacy was snuffed out in me at 24. During my visit to a very ivy college in Vermont, and picking up a copy of the campus paper, I was appalled by the sub-literacy of the reporters. My subsequent (and brief) tenure as a student at Middlebury rammed home the realization that even being the wealthiest of scions, and graduates of elite Eastern prep schools, did not guarantee literacy. My Freshman Writing professor was even driven, late in the semester, to spend an entire class period going over what I considered the basic, fundamental grammatical elements of composition. Although I had been making freelance money as a published writer for some time, I was not rendered smug by this revelation, that the tony graduates of even tonier Establishment schools, enrolled at a more or less exclusive secondary institution, simply could not write their way out of the proverbial wet paper bag. Could not cobble together the most elemental components of a coherent, thoughtful sentence (let alone paragraph.) Could not write, as our British cousins say, for toffee.

I’m not referring here to writing which is trite, or insipid, in content. I mean the sheer inability by the writer to structure a basic phrase that reads with fluidity and sense. And what really disturbs me is that the careless habits of my own epoch seem to replicate, to expand, to become ever more jaw-droppingly insensate with each each succeeding generation. Not only does there seem no immediate remedy, there seems no hope.

When listening to music at work I am subject to my PC’s Windows Media player. Since most of the discs I bring to the office from my personal collection are movie soundtracks, I often have recourse to search the Microsoft “Find album information” application and, just as often, to enter the track listings myself. (Bear with me; I promise this digression has a point.) As I bring only the CD itself to work with me and not the jewel box and inserts, I am usually unable to reconstruct the titles without doing a Google search for the disc, often a specialty-house, limited edition recording. This morning, for instance, I was looking for the titles that make up Jerry Fielding’s score for the bad remake of The Big Sleep. One source listed them thus:

1. Main Title 3:29
2 Meet General Sternwood / Chasing Smut 2:49
3 Marlowe Tails Geiger / The Head Shot 4:27
4 Blood Stains / Owen Taylor / Follow That Van 3:04
5 First Mars, Then Brody / Brody’s Story 2:00
6 Brody Takes A Bullet / Where Is It / Tailing Marlowe 2:22
7 Shadow On The Wall 0:51
8 Late Night 0:45
9 The Man With The Gray Car / Here’s To The Truth, Harry 1:47
10 Agnes’ Story / Hunts Garage / Just Fix The Flats 2:27
11 Cuffs And Guns / The End Of Canino 3:12
12 The Good Guy Never Gets The Girl / Marlowe To Sternwood 0:53
13 The Truth 1:28
14 Blanks / The Last Of Rusty Regan 2:24
15 End Title

The results for Fielding’s The Nightcomers were even worse:

1 1M1 Main Title 2:45
2 1M2 The Smoking Frog 2:08
3 2M2 Bedtime At Blye House 3:03
4 3M1 New Clothes For Quint 0:36
5 3M2 The Children’s Hour 1:22
6 3M3 Pas De Deux 1:26
7 3M4A Like A Chicken On A Spit 0:57
8 4M1 All That Pain 0:59
9 5M1/6M1 Summer Rowing 2:04
10 6M2 Quint Has A Kite 1:01
11 6M3 Act Two Prelude: Myles In The Air 0:55
12 6M4 Upside Down Turtle 1:36
13 7M1 An Arrow For Mrs. Grose 0:32
14 7M2 Flora And Miss Jessel 1:12
15 7M4 Tea In The Tree 1:02
16 7M5 The Flower Bath 2:22
17 8M1 Pig Sty 1:38
18 9M1 Moving Day 0:55
19 9M2 The Big Swim 3:32
20 9M4/10M1 Through The Looking Glass 2:42
21 10M2 Burning Dolls 2:07
22 10M3/10M4 Exit Peter Quint, Enter The New Governess; Recapitulation And Postlude 2:01

Do you notice anything?

If you don’t, I’m sorry to tell you that you, my dear, are part of the problem.

So is the WordPress spelling checker, which doesn’t notice the plethora of needless, and utterly mind-numbing, capitalizations of connective and modifying words that any reasonably well educated user of English understands implicitly are, even in a title, written in the lower case. “Where Is It”: Aside from this obvious question having no punctuation mark, the two upper case “I”s are unnecessary. Ditto the capital “O” in the “on” and “T” in the “the” of “Shadow On The Wall”… Both “with” and “the” in the first phrase and “to” and “the” in the second in “The Man With The Gray Car / Here’s To The Truth, Harry.” The “the” in “Just Fix The Flats.” The “and” and the “of” in “Cuffs And Guns / The End Of Canino”… and on and on and on throughout both sets of (or should I say “Both Sets Of”?) track listings. After scanning the first few such barbarisms the eye begins to glaze, the mind to becloud. Even song, or music cue, titles cannot be capitalized willy-nilly and without recourse to proper usage. Somewhere, I like to think, the shade of the very intelligent Jerry Fielding is shaking his head in disgust.

Yet a worse thought obtrudes: Was the composer himself responsible for this? Since a) these things show up regularly, on every music website, regardless of the composer whose work is listed; and that b) one never used to see these errors on the old soundtrack LPs which often form the source of these digitized recordings,  I rather think Fielding — and Bernstein, and North, and Williams, and Barry et al. — are off the hook.

Never mind for the moment that, on the evidence of one’s emails and even a casual glance at social media commentary, spelling is at an all-time nadir and correct punctuation has gone the way of the dodo even in the so-called papers of record… particularly regarding the possessive; even the New York Times prints “CD’s” when what surely is meant is “CDs.” Unless the unspecified item in question belongs to Charles Dance, Cecil DeMille or (who knows?) Claude Dukenfield. For these and other careless, mindless errors I now see no remedy short of enforced mass re-education, compulsory brain-washing or, perhaps, in the most intractable cases, cerebral surgery.

But whence this weird, manic, almost obsessive, adherence to (if I may be permitted the use of a phrase most often seen in an economic context) over-capitalization? Is it total ignorance? Guess-work? Or worse, the complete conviction of the “writer” that he or she is on the side of the linguistic angels? Surely it didn’t come from the physical evidence around them; even the splashiest picture-storybooks for children usually get this right. Or at least, they did when I was a child.

Look: I am not the finest speller in the world. I routinely bottomed out of spelling bees in grammar school, and no innovation of modern technology has been of greater boon to me than SpellCheck. But if, as and when I am unsure of myself, I seek the answer. When I was in fourth grade, a representative of Funk & Wagnalls (infamous to us then as the slightly suggestive punchline of a wonky Dick Martin running-gag on Laugh-In) visited our class. This was during the Punic Age, when such sops to naked capitalism in the public schools raised no eyebrows (they should have) and were appallingly routine…. although I gather such times have since returned. In any case, and although I’ve long since divested myself of the physical talisman itself, I’ve never forgotten the little pin-back buttons the agent passed out. They read, “We never guess. We look it [not “It”] up.” F&W were appealing to us, not merely to get our parents exercised about investing in a pricey set of encyclopedias; the publisher was, however market-driven its reasons, inveigling us to check our sources. To be better than we were — or at least, better informed. The motto of my state (Esse quam vederi: “To be, rather than to seem”) builds, in a philosophical manner, on this. That of my eventual college, Hampshire, goes further: Non satis scirie. “To know is not enough.” To think you know, and to act on that misapprehension, is altogether too much, as well as too little. How much human misery might have been avoided else? Not that anyone but cranks such as myself are made miserable by poor (or non-existent) grammar. But if an error is indulged in long enough, it lodges in the popular lexicon, and becomes permanent.

That’s One Hell Of A Horror To Contemplate.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

The Buzzword Walks Among Us

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By Scott Ross

It is, I suppose, a measure of how out of step I am with my time that I care, not only about how I express myself, but how others speak, and write, as well. “Curmudgeon” comes to mind most readily as an epithet for the likes of me. Well, call me sorehead, call me crank. Call me crusty if you really must. Call me a malcontent, a Grammar-Nazi, or even (should you be of a whimsical turn of mind) murmurer or crosspatch. I got through 9th grade — I’ve been called worse. Teen-talk, as it’s called, with its accent on digital media acronyms, inarticulate and pointless conversational interjections (“like”) and overuse of words like “awesome” (“brilliant” in Britain) is sometimes annoying, but one can’t get overly exercised about it. I was a teenager once. It’s when it follows you into adulthood that it becomes maddening. And each time I read or hear an adult man or woman who was once a good speaker, or a good writer, adopt the trendy, teen-speak “way” for “much” or “far,” something in me dies a little.*

Slang is not the issue. The adoption of the demotic and the colloquial do not, in themselves, cause me to despair; language that does not move and change and grow with those who speak it soon becomes language that is fustian, and dead. What I am nattering on about are those words that muddy the stream of meaningful discourse. Saying, or worse, writing, “impact” as a verb so often that it becomes accepted speech does not clarify. It obfuscates. Anyone who can, with complete lack of guile, use that adjectival nightmare “impactful” and not feel a sense of shame so overwhelming as to induce a psychic breakdown is already beyond saving. Using “proactive” when what you really mean is to behave in a manner that anticipates problems and avoids them before they occur, is sheer linguistic barbarism. The English-speaking world managed just fine being active (or even “reactive”) for hundreds of years and was not aware that it needed grammatical correction for a verbal lack that never existed.

And we won’t even mention “verbal” when you mean “oral.”

Most of the bad badinage that afflicts rational discourse has arisen from, as nearly as I can determine, three principal sources, none of which I would trust with fixing a streetlamp, much less altering the language: Business, government, and that curiously hyper-polite matrix I think of as “OfficerSpeak”: The military and its kissing-cousin, what we still, if laughingly now, refer to as “law enforcement.”

From the world of business, contiguous with its nasty little soul-mate The Ad Biz, both of which are of course ever-mindful of what is rightest, newest, “coolest” and best, we get such hideous neologisms as the aforementioned “proactive” and the rending of a hitherto perfectly inoffensive little noun like “impact.” Business is, in bloating the coffers of the language, a busy little beaver indeed and so has provided us with nifty hack-words and phrases like “diversity,” “empowerment” (and its bastard bother “powerful”)†, “core values,” “joined-up thinking” (this, from people whose cerebra are as creaseless as a neonate’s), “incentivize,” “signage,” “paradigm-shift,” “strategize” “think outside the box,” and, that all-time favorite of Michael Eisner (whisper who dares), “synergy.” Sadly, these utterly meaningless words and phrases have, with the speed of sound itself, filtered into every conceivable nook and linguistic cranny of daily life. Well, as Mel Brooks once noted in one of his ad-libbed colloquies with Carl Reiner, “Advertising is a lot stronger than life.”

Government, which has proven itself over the millennia and in every guise about as trustworthy as ants before an open jar of honey, tosses the language about like barrels of pork to a professional lobbyist. And with as much integrity. I well remember, even from the wobbly age of 12 or 13, the assault of jargon, and the flatulent verbiage, that emerged from the Watergate scandal, as slimy as Nixon but with even greater sticking power. Of “in terms of,” a then-nascent hack-phrase whose use is now epidemic, Robert Klein observed at the time: “That’s a phrase I heard about three times in my life before this year.” With the passage of time, it’s gotten even worse: “Enhanced interrogation techniques” when what we mean (and should riot over our government’s use of) is “torture.” And should you wish to spend billions of our treasure and ensure the continued health and, as our betters would say, “viability” of anything, just declare war on it. Whatever “it” is (poverty, drug abuse, famine, terrorism) rest assured it will never be heard from again.

The armed forces, at least in America, are well known for their determination to break down the individual. Each branch then says it is in the business of building that young person up again… on its own terms. And with its own terms. Thus, the instantly-understood becomes, with time and effort, euphemized and re-jiggered beyond all sane codification: As George Carlin famously pointed out, the World War I term “shell-shock,” a blunt word to match a man-made, horrifying condition, became by the next War to End Wars, “battle fatigue.” Now, of course, it’s not a phrase or even a word; it’s an acronym. PTSD sounds ever so much less threatening than shell shock, doesn’t it? Guns are not ‘weapons,” they’re “assets.” The accurate application of ordinance meant to blow human beings into their constituent parts is “clean” bombing. Saber-rattling might is “coercive potential.” The hideously maimed, both physically and psychologically, need no longer be crippled, handicapped or driven to the brink of madness by their experience as cannon-fodder. Now they hobble about, or drool with pride, having achieved the exalted status of “wounded warriors.” Worst, and most blood-chilling, the loss of life and limb by the innocent at the hands — or, more accurately, the thumbs and forefingers — of our “freedom fighters” is now mere “collateral damage.” Oops. My bad, as they say. All too often.

When freedom fighters (those, in any event, who do not become wounded warriors) enter civilian life, they traditionally gravitate to two fields: Aviation, if they’re Air Force personnel of proven abilities, or the police, if they’re… well… discretion forbids. Here they can take the weirdly prissy articles of overly elaborate verbal protocol they’ve learned as soldiers and apply them to everyday life. How often have we watched, and listened, as some martinet cop on the eleven-o’clock news goes through his or her (usually his) protracted, over-articulated spiel when asked about the commission of a crime? The officer never merely arrests when he can “apprehend.” Accused criminals are “individuals” or “perpetrators.” And neither cop nor felon need ever flee from or merely and humbly get out of an automobile; they “disengage from their vehicles.” Obfuscation of this type, and in this form, is deadening. Perhaps that is the intention? The more emotionally robotized and phlegmatic the cop — excuse me, the Law Enforcement Officer — the more fascistic he seems, and the more to be feared. And obeyed. Which is, of course, the true social goal of our increasingly militarized police forces.

The many and various media, of course, take their cues from all of the above, particularly when dealing with popular culture. It is now axiomatic that any book, movie, play or piece of sausage-factory pop-music that has managed to eke out a year or two of notoriety is a “classic.” Any individual of whatever stripe whose career has lasted more than a decade is instantly granted the exalted sobriquet “legendary.” Music no longer functions as a stimulant, an anodyne, or possesses a meaning of its own; it is “the soundtrack to [fill in the blank.]”‡

As for the rest of us (those who in any case are not ourselves legends) we no longer have lives. We have life-styles. We do not read — well, who does now? — listen to, watch, or in any meaningful fashion absorb the fruits of culture, high, low or middle. We “consume” it. And, one presumes, in a throwaway society, consign it to the W.C. of civilization once we’ve finished digesting it.

Well, I say it’s bullshit, and I say the hell with it.

As William Strunk, Jr. noted in The Elements of Style, “Vigorous writing is concise.” It’s a phrase that has become something of a mantra with me over the years, and which I now apply equally to speaking. Strunk goes on, a few phrases later: “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” [Emphasis mine.] Words are not empty things. They convey meaning, and, especially in this so-called Communication Age, aid immeasurably in one human being reaching another. But if the words we employ cloak meaning, or cheapen it, or obfuscate and obtrude where they should clarify and enlighten, we are as one with those E.Y. Harburg once whimsically termed “the rabble at the Tower of Babel,” talking over, under and around each other without making anything like a meaningful, or even temporary, connection.

And don’t get even me started on cell ‘phones.


* Richard Corliss, I’m speaking to you.

† The abuse of poor old inoffensive “power” reaches its nadir in the patently ridiculous vogue-phrase, oxymoronic in the extreme, “Rest in Power.” The personal anxiety informing that one I leave to psychologists.

‡ “Soundtrack” carries its own linguistic burdens; an original cast recording is still far too often referred to by ignoramuses as a “Broadway soundtrack.” Then again, these days, with the theatre experience itself more and more resembling a rock concert in style, form, presentation and content, and where the soundboard operator is at least the coeval of the actor-singer-dancer, and more important than the stage manager, that is perhaps as it should be.

Text Copyright 2013 by Scott Ross