At the end of the day we'll be blue-skying nutritionally

Someone is finally trying to do something about plane speech. I should hope so. On my last flight the ticket said "Dinner'' and all I got was a bag of pretzels. Also I ... oh, sorry, plain speech. P-l-a-i-n. Once again we're being told to avoid cliches like leprosy. (Gotcha!) It's about time. Literally. At the top of the Plain English Campaign's poll of annoying cliches was "At the end of the day.''

And tied for second was "at this moment in time.'' Good. Members of my family have been campaigning for years to replace "at this point in time'' with the possibly obscure but certainly concise term "now.''

According to the PEC (they did not inveigh against acronyms) press release, second place was shared by "the constant use of 'like' as if it were a form of punctuation.'' Hey guys, don't think small. What about its constant use as if it were like whatever, as in I'm like "Stop saying like'' and they're like "Like man I ...''. Even repetitive obscenity is eloquent by comparison.

I'm not convinced all misuse of language is bad. For instance, "With all due respect'' was their fourth-least-favourite phrase, but as Jim Hacker of Yes Minister says, at least it warns you you're about to be insulted.

For the same reason, I'm not happy with their attempted ban on all variants of "to be honest with you,'' because I consider it a dead giveaway that someone, let's call him William Jefferson Clinton, is about to tell a whopper. The phrase "I hear what you're saying'' seems trite, since if I believed you were unable to hear me I would move closer, speak more loudly, write you a note or engage a sign language translator. But (shades of "Je vous ai entendus'') it tells the alert listener they're about to be ignored and patronized. I favour such verbiage for the same reason I'm glad rattlesnakes have rattles. (Likewise, their targeted "thinking outside the box" braces you for some tired old novelty.)

PEC spokesman John Lister said "George Orwell's advice from 1946 is still worth following: 'Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print'."

I think that's pushing it too far, if I may use that familiar expression. The bottom line, to address the issue in a basically awesome way, going forward, is that a very good way to find out what people think is to listen to what they say. When academic researchers study The Simpsons for many long dusty hours and conclude "Television offers numerous opportunities to learn but can contribute to a variety of public health concerns for youth,'' you know they didn't grasp that kids find it funny that Homer's a pig.

When a cliche becomes annoying it's because it reflects an idea that is both common and harmfully trite. There's nothing wrong with a metaphor as familiar and comfortable as an old pair of slippers, provided it accurately describes something that happens a lot but still requires comment. For instance "Liberal slush fund.''

Which is why despite such quibbles I'm very much in favour of plain speech. Imagine if it infiltrated politics. Suppose instead of "Proposal: That Treasury Board approve inclusion of an item ... for funding to support the communications priorities of the government of Canada" they'd just said "We're gonna give a bunch of boodle to our buds." The public would have objected in singularly plain language; they'd have nixed the idea and we'd all be better off now.

If that's too much to ask, how about "Yup, we did it" or "OK, we're busted" or, in British parlance, "It's a fair cop"? And could people in government please stop using the passive voice? You know: mistakes were made, money was wasted, windows were jumped out of. Of course it doesn't help if newspapers tell readers of "a bloody weekend that claimed the lives of an Israeli couple and their young son, an Israeli soldier and a 14-year-old Palestinian girl, shot dead at her home." What's this? People don't kill people, weekends kill people? The real problem isn't the wording, it's the underlying idea, that humans are not responsible for their actions. I even think "at the end of the day" reveals, unintentionally, a short-sighted tendency not to consider how things will be tomorrow morning.

Plain speech means plain thought; convoluted speech full of trite metaphors the opposite. Please do not use your tongue to twist your mind into a pretzel.

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After seven years on the Citizen's editorial board I'm now writing for the paper on a freelance basis. I hope you'll keep reading, and tune in to my new radio show starting next week on AM 580 CFRA, weeknights 8 to 10 PM.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson