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Epidemic of language abuse
Jul 08, 2011
An outbreak of language abuse has occurred among those who get quoted in the media. Note the over-use of “in terms of.” This hollow phrase means nothing.
Today’s politicians seldom weigh in on anything without throwing a few in terms of into the conversation. Pay attention the next time the prime minister speaks on radio or TV.
A recent Sun article discussing photo enforcement tickets issued to Winnipeg Transit drivers, quoted city spokeswoman, Tammy Melesko: “Especially in terms of Transit (the city’s reaction) could include ... a remedial driving program.”
A parody of that sentence might ask, “In terms of this pronouncement, what use does in terms of serve?”
Melesko could have said something like, “Transit drivers might face remedial driving programs.”
Charleswood-Tuxedo Councillor  Paula Havixbeck may be a newcomer to politics, but she already knows how to use a lot of words to say zilch. Following last October’s election, she “explained” how hard it is for individual candidates to get media attention: “In terms of the campaign, I think it was very difficult to get noticed.”
“During” might have been a better word, but since campaign visibility was the topic, in terms of the campaign was all pure padding.
In April, while pontificating on money and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Councillor Jeff Browaty declared, “In my mind, this is the end of the line in terms of additional funding.”         
Is in terms of crucial to the understanding of this sentence? Is in my mind any more important?
If in terms of were completely erased from the English language, not one person, communication or important message would suffer.
But let’s get back to Browaty. In a mere 15 words, he managed to use two clichés — end of the line and in terms of.
Some of the worst language originates with media themselves and involves the “nouning” of verbs. It’s true that innovative use of language contributes to English’s already large vocabulary. In fact, I recently wrote in favour of “verbing” adjectives (to google).
But this October Free Press caption made me shudder. “A bequeath by Bernard Goekoop got a foundation in Rivers started.” Bequest, even bequeathal (nouns), not bequeath (a verb), should have been used here.
Alas! the Free Press isn’t alone. A December Globe and Mail headline blared, “WikiLeaks’ Big Reveal.” This mis-use of reveal prompted several letters to the editor, some pointing out that employing language this way has been English practice for 1,000 years.
In linguistics, this kind of usage is called a “functional shift.” Such shifts arise naturally when existing vocabulary doesn’t suggest the needed meaning. We hardly need a functional shift in the case of bequest and revelation.
This same usage abuse occurs with the verb, ask, e.g., “The ask from Council was several thousand dollars.” And, “He gifted the community with a new arena.”
This kind of  mis-use of bequeath, reveal, ask and gift bothers us because we already have the necessary words. Inventing new usage seems both unnatural and affected.