Maybe it’s my imagination (or a symptom of advancing age), but the devolution of the English language seems to have accelerated in the past decade or so. Business-speak English, of course, has spawned its own unique abominations: the infamous meeting-friendly cliche of “Let’s circle back” (something which experience tells us never actually occurs) and its bastard siblings, verbal inanities like, “level-set,” “move the needle,” and “company culture” are now so universally hated they could easily be parodied in a sequel to Office Space.
Much of the blame for bad office-speak can be laid at the feet of the technological revolution. “Solutions,” probably the most common marketing word in the early part of the millennium (as in “business solutions,” “solutions for your business,” or “the leader in IT solutions”) seems to have finally, thankfully succumbed to a painfully tedious death, although it still surfaces occasionally, much like that old Lagoon creature, in print and television ads. For example, “wealth management solutions” is still around, occupying an abhorrent class all by itself.
But the yammering of political news on TV yields its own, unique set of trite buzz phrases, some of which have seeped into other areas of conversational speech. There are several of these but three in particular tend to rankle my nerves when I hear them. Two of them (“So...” and “That’s a great question”) occur most noticeably in the context of interviews conducted for newspeople, but have now seeped into other aspects of human intercourse as well, such as speeches and presentations. The other monstrosity (“Take a listen”) is exclusively the province of newscasters, most often directed to the viewing audience when a video clip of something is being shown.
We’ll start with “So...” because it’s ubiquitous and the least annoying. It pops up most often when a speaker is asked a question, but instead of answering the question itself, decides instead to make a statement first. It appears to fulfill two functions. First, it gives the speaker an added second to collect their thoughts. Second, it usually primes whoever is listening that an explanation is forthcoming (as opposed to a direct answer to the question posed). It has no meaning in and of itself (in this context we’re supposed to treat it as a distant cousin, twice removed from a conjunction, I suppose) but simply fills time and dead air.
WOLF BLITZER: Did the former president lie when he said he’d declassified the documents himself?
TRUMP ATTORNEY: So … the former president, Wolf, has never actually said that he declassified documents…
“So” is used in this manner because it sounds better than “Um,” “Well,” or “Err...,” but it also apparently serves as a tool of conversation management. As noted by dictionary.com:
This use of so assumes a certain level of engagement in the discussion. The speaker assumes that the listener is engaged enough to connect the words following so to an earlier moment in the conversation.
But that’s a cop-out. A speaker shouldn’t have to convey the fact that “yes, he’s heard your question,” nor should he have to affirm — via “so,” “well” or some other monosyllabic grunt — that you’re expecting an answer. Since the use of “So...” to precede a response has gained such currency (it’s a particular favorite of company spokespersons and press secretaries) I’m fairly resigned to the fact of its existence for the remainder of my time on the planet. However, perhaps future generations in a world we cannot yet imagine will finally recognize that it has exactly zero meaning.
The next bit of meaningless modern jargon is when a speaker responds by saying first “That’s a great question.” I used to feel a thrill of happiness run up my spine when I first heard this in response to a question I’d asked, but I now realize that in an interpersonal context it’s meaningless. Because if it was not a “great question” I probably wouldn’t have wasted my time asking it in the first place. And if I’m among an audience, and we’re all questioning a speaker about something, does the fact that someone else’s question is singled out by the speaker as a “great” one render my prior, pitiful question merely substandard? And what’s the difference between a “good” question and a “great” one?
Half the time I hear someone told they’ve asked a “great question,” I am at a complete loss to understand why it was so “great.” What I’ve finally concluded after years of studying this phenomenon is that a “great question” usually boils down to a question that the speaker is actually capable of answering.
ME: Will this exorbitant college tuition figure also include a meal plan so my child doesn’t starve to death?
ADMISSIONS COUNSELOR: That’s a great question. No, the meal plan will cost extra.
The worst aspect of this nothing-speak is that it can be inserted at the beginning or end of a response. Sometimes, to my everlasting dismay, it’s even repeated: “That’s a great question … (insert long-winded answer) … Really great question, though!”
But the most atrocious of these contemporary verbal conventions is one that seems to have first reared its head on CNN (I’ve searched high and low for its antecedent in any other context and come up empty): the infamous “Take a listen.” As observed by Valerie Strauss, writing in 2016 for the Washington Post, this phrase simply rankles:
If you listen to the news — pretty much any channel — it is likely that it won’t take more than a few minutes for you to hear someone say “take a listen” and then go to some video. I know it’s hardly one of the world’s big (or even little) problems, and it’s hardly a new one, but I cringe when I hear it. I’m not the only one.
Strauss quotes the Grammarphobia blog, which sums up my feelings about this usage probably better than anything I could come up with:
Q: On CNN, all the anchors use the expression “take a 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 about caustic, but it certainly sounds puffed up, condescending, and lame. We could go on, but let us quote from the entry for this “infantile phrase” in The Dimwit’s Dictionary (2d ed.), by Robert Hartwell Fiske:
“As inane as it is insulting, have (take) a listen obviously says nothing that listen alone does not. Journalists and media personalities who use this offensive phrase ought to be silenced; businesspeople, dismissed; public officials, pilloried.”
“Take a listen” is, of course marginally derived from the phrase “Take a look,” which is a common, accepted idiom, meaning to focus on something. Perhaps one day it will become so commonplace that I’ll be able to hear it without “cringing,” as Strauss puts it, but I doubt it. I don’t like the cheap familiarity it conveys; I feel as if I’m cajoled into something by someone who hasn’t taken the time to learn how to express themselves, and as a result decides to address me like they would to a two-year old.
“Take a listen...” Blech!