Moving low-hanging fruit forward at the end of the day

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Today's Dilbert:

This strip's first panel displays a number of stock items from the inventory of peevology, fixed-expression department.  For example, "at the end of the day" was at the top of the Plain English Campaign's 2004 list of the "most irritating phrases" in the language.

The usual complaint is that these phrases violate Orwell's injunction  to "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print". But the complainers, in the very text of their complaints, generally use their own collection of common "metaphors, similes, or other figures of speech", which typically occur in print even more often than the phrases that they're complaining about.

In this Dilbert strip, Scott Adams suggests two different reasons for irritation. One is that the offending phrases are stereotypically associated with a despised minority, in this case "managers". That's clearly a central part of the picture ("The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming", 2/27/2007) — but as we'll see below, it's not clear that these stereotypes are fair ones.

The second charge is that the offending phrases are part of a broader pattern of linguistic crime, here "the vacuous way that managers speak". And again, the validity of this charge is not clear.

In the first place, each of the peeve-provoking phrases has apparently inoffensive counterparts, which are more or less equally frequent, and neither more nor less vacuous: "From now on, we'll skim the cream when all is said and done". This isn't stereotypical manager-speak, but it's not much of a contribution to corporate strategizing either.

But also, if we look at how the constituent clichés are used in real life,  we don't see a preponderance of  managers — at least not corporate ones — and we do see reasonable contributions to non-vacuity.

Moving forward: As an adverbial meaning "from now on; in the future as distinct from the past", going forward seems somewhat commoner than moving forward. And on 1/2/2009, Toni Monkovic identified "going foward" as her "pick for cliche of 2009" in football, using the criteria that is has to be "essentially meaningless, exhaustively overused, and I have to really really hate it", thus validating Scott Adams' ear for irritants. There are certainly plenty of examples in the world of football, like Kellen Clemens' comment on the Jets' decision to start Mark Sanchez ("Going forward it is Mark’s job and I’ll support him"), or Roger Goodell's statement on Michael Vick's reinstatement (“I’m a believer personally that if somebody recognizes either mistakes in judgment or things, they can do better going forward, that the general public will recognize that and give people an opportunity to prove themselves").

But going|moving forward seems to be more commonly used by politicians and journalists than by corporate types or sports figures.

Barack Obama and his administration seem to be especially fond of it: "Going forward, we cannot tolerate the same old boom and bust economy of the past"; "Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course"; "Going forward, we can make a difference on several fronts"; "And going forward, we can build a lasting relationship founded upon mutual interests and mutual respect as Iraq takes its rightful place in the community of nations"; "Going forward, my administration will continue to consult closely with Congress and with our allies as we deploy this system"; "The biggest concern that I have moving forward is that the toll that job losses take on individual families and communities can be self-reinforcing"; …

But the Republican National Committee is almost as committed: "…concerned about the current negotiations and feel that it is necessary to restate our strong position on several issues and provisions going forward"; "This is a subject that needs to be focused on going forward"; "But from that point going forward, I felt it was best to stand on principle"; …

The Freakonomics blog is also a fan of this phrase: "Going forward, we’ll be cross-posting Robin’s Freakonomics-relevant blog entries here on the blog"; "I do not think this has a negative impact on lending going forward because everyone knows the rules of how things work in bankruptcy reorganizations, especially these days when lots of folks who made secured loans to pretty iffy organizations will have to take haircuts"; "If anything, we anticipate them taking a larger and more direct role going forward"; "And the questioner explained that her friends were thinking that going forward, these foreign locales were likely to be much more economically successful than the West"; …

And so is Thomas Friedman: "But going forward, if peace talks get under way, there are a few style points Mr. Obama should keep in mind"; "But the message going forward to every car buyer and carmaker would be this: The price of gasoline is never going back down"; "The big question I have going forward in Iraq is this"; "And the question I have going forward is whether that will be the case with President Bush"; "Tell the American people how you would deal with Iraq going forward"; "But going forward, this will be less and less true"; …

Low-hanging fruit: There were only 29 instances of this phrase in the NYT's archive for the past year. Of these, seven were about business and finance (mostly about the recent financial crisis), five were about energy use and climate change, four were about public health, and two were about sports. None seemed especially vacuous: "A variety of experts [...] have long recognized that, compared with other tacks like building solar farms and extracting oil from algae, improving efficiency across all sectors, from transportation to housing, is low-hanging fruit"; "the Obama administration cannot overlook the low-hanging fruit — the gains to be had from making existing technologies more efficient"; "reducing black carbon is one of a number of relatively quick and simple climate fixes using existing technologies — often called "low hanging fruit' — that scientists say should be plucked immediately to avert the worst projected consequences of global warming"; …

At the end of the day: There were 408 instances of this phrase in the NYT over the past year. Of the 46 in the past 30 days (some of which were used literally, rather than in the metaphorical sense of "in the final analysis" or "when all is said and done"), sports (10) and politics (9) were commoner contexts (for the metaphorical examples) than business (7). And again, the uses didn't seem especially vacuous: "Again, at the end of the day, it's about how we can get the last six or nine outs"; "“You can try to work walks. But at the end of the day, if you can hit home runs, you want to hit home runs"; …

But even if these phrases are usually non-vacuous and non-managerial, they've certainly become more common. Thus "at the end of the day" has 14,452 hits on Google News this morning, compared to 539 for "in the final analysis", 28 for "in the last analysis", and 1,376 for "when all is said and done". The ratio of  "at the end of the day" to its common alternatives seems to have become quite a bit greater in recent decades — this morning's ratio is 14452/(539+28+1376) = 7.44, compared to the ratio for the Google News archive from 1950 to 1960 of 1750/(2750+1660+304) = 0.371.

This order-of-magnitude increase in relative frequency is no doubt the real source of the irritation, with vacuity and source statistics being secondary (or entirely imaginary) factors.

[Update: more here and here.]

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26 Comments »

  1. Dan T. said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 10:17 am

    Doesn't it make more sense to pick the low-hanging fruit at the beginning of the day, and then move upward (rather than forward) to pick higher-up fruit before the end of the day if time permits? That would probably maximize crop-harvesting, as opposed to spending your time early in the day on the slower process of picking high-up fruit, saving the low-hanging fruit for the end of the day, but perhaps ending up with sundown coming before you've even gotten to them?

  2. rootlesscosmo said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 10:27 am

    Lawyers often use "go forward" to characterize a choice in case strategy: "We asked for a continuance, but the other side wants to go forward." The alternative usually is "stand still," not "go backward" or "move sideways;" the destination is final disposition of the case.

  3. pjharvey said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 10:49 am

    You point out that an irritant of the uses of the phrases in the Dilbert Cartoon is that they are spoken forms of written figures of speech, then claim that the stereotypes in the cartoon don't necessarily hold. Yet you use a written archive to make your case. The Dilbert cartoon is mocking the way managers speak, not how they formally write.

    Perhaps a search through e-mail archives would offer a better representation of how managers (ab)use these figures of speech, although such an archive may be rather more difficult to obtain.

  4. The Ridger said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 11:27 am

    Everyone has phrases they hate (I know I do). Not everyone imagines themselves appointed to prevent people from using them.

  5. Spectre-7 said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    @Dan T.

    I look at it as more of a safety issue. Your workers are likely to be exhausted at the end of the day, so you'd want them picking the low-hanging fruit. It's not only easier work, but also presents a smaller chance of producing serious injuries in the event of accidents.

  6. mollymooly said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

    LL posts about word peeves and grammar peeves could be misinterpreted as being hypocritical, in that the attitude shown by the LL-poster towards the peeved-complainer is analogous to the attitude shown by the peeved-complainer to the writer/utterer of the deprecated usage. That is: the way ordinary people use language may sometimes peeve you; likewise, the way ordinary people react to others' language use may sometimes peeve you. In both cases, you should not to turn your peeve into a moral issue; but you may gain insight from accounting for it objectively.

  7. Vance said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

    PJHarvey's point gets to the core problem with this (peevish?) analysis of peevology. I wouldn't expect to read this crap in the NYT, but I have heard it all too often in corporate meetings.

    Part of the problem is lack of literacy, and thus a paucity of internalized colorful speech. Thus, the unimaginative middle manager must rely on others for buzzwords that convey wit. Yes, "low-hanging fruit" conveys the point concisely, but it becomes established as a corporate concept and occurs with frequency far out of proportion to its occurences in ordinary speech, and to its brilliance as a concept.

    When the form begins to distract attention from the content, peevishness kicks in. Ever heard of "buzzword bingo"? It's the only way to stay awake, sometimes.

  8. Daniel C. Parmenter said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 1:42 pm

    @Mollymooly: good point!

    @PJHarvey (could it really be?) I agree that a quick grep through some corporate email archives might reveal a different story about who uses such terms. Also, it's not just the use of the individual terms, but the "constellation" of the same terms all co-appearing that one encounters.

    Regarding the original post:

    At my current company I have definitely heard these terms used in speech and seen them written in email. I think that Scott Adams' use of these terms might seem more realistic in the following context:

    "We met yesterday and agreed that going forward, we're going to concentrate on the low-hanging fruit, because at the end of the day, that's where our system is strongest"

    Still jargony, but more plausible (IMO) than the Scott Adams version, which comes across (to me) as contrived.

    In our business another favorite is "drilling down", meaning moving from the general to the particular. We use it in the sense of narrowing a search, or balancing recall and precision (i.e. number of documents returned vs. percentage of relevant documents returned), but I've also heard it used for things such as navigating menus in a GUI.

    As a relatively enlightened thinker with regard to the dangers of prescriptivism and as a professional Grammarian (my actual job title) for a company that uses NLP technology, you might think that I'd be unaffected by peevishness about such terms. And yet, I really do find them annoying sometimes. It's probably a purely Pavlovian response: I only ever hear these terms at work, so I associate them with my work, which I don't always love.

  9. Bloix said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

    Often the purpose of formulaic language is that, in certain contexts – business, managerial, legal – what is not said is as or more important than what is said. The speaker must communicate to the listeners, but he also must not say any of an infinite number of things that could be used against him, or his boss, upper management, client, etc — that is he must not commit a "gaffe." Using formulaic language allows the speaker to convey information in a tried-and-true manner – sponteneity being the source of embarrassing statements. Such phrases often use colorful metaphors, perhaps because such metaphors appear to give the illusion of particularity while in fact staying at a high level of generalization. The higher the level of generalization, the less likely it is that something embarrassing will be said.

    "Going forward" is a good example of this sort of formula. In my experience, it seems to have begun as a way of turning attention to how a problem is going to be fixed, or future versions of the problem avoided, without expressly admitting that the problem ever existed. It seems to have expanded somewhat to fill the role of "in the future" (or "in future" if you're Engish), perhaps because the metaphor of purposeful movement makes it sound more positive and in control, but it's still used as a transition that allows the speaker to slide away from confronting whatever unpleasant past event is under examination.

  10. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

    In my experience with managers (exhaustively extensive), they are (a) vacuous, and (b) inept users of language, in that order. Adams has it nailed. Don't for a moment think that they routinely hold cogent thoughts, and that the phrases "moving forward," "low-hanging fruit," et al. are thoroughly thought out, well-polished mots that precisely express razor sharp ideas. The genius of stereotypes is that they contain so much truth.

  11. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

    I'm not totally convinced by this analysis.

    I think I agree with the comic's implicit claim that these expressions, among others, are often used vacuously by managerial types; and as other commenters have pointed out above, your chosen corpora seem quite ill-equipped to determine if that is indeed the case. (Presumably you chose the testable hypothesis over the relevant one, but your conclusion regarding the former might not apply to the latter.)

    That said, I think it's quite possible that some of Dr. Zwicky's patented Illusions are in play here — for example, you seem to have demonstrated that these expressions are often used non-vacuously by non-managerial types, and it seems natural that vacuous managerial uses would stick out more, creating a Frequency Illusion whereby they seemed to be the majority, even if they are not.

    [(myl) That's exactly the situation in which confirmation bias gives rise to stereotypical associations, whose strength may be quite independent of their empirical validity.]

  12. Andrew said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

    Daniel C. Parmenter: I agree that Adams' use of these expressions comes across as contrived, and the sentence you give using them is more realistic.

    However, I took this to be part of the point. In your sentence, it is reasonably clear what the expressions are being used to say. In Adams' it is not; Dilbert's colleague is stringing the expressions together without much thought of what they mean, and that is why Dilbert intially supposes he is being humorous. But in fact he is not; he is just using the expressions because he has learnt that managers are supposed to use them.

  13. Mary Kuhner said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 9:31 pm

    "Low-hanging fruit" is almost a fixed expression in genetics research to express the idea that easy-to-map genes (cases in which a single relatively common variant unequivocally causes a clear-cut genetic disease) have already been mapped, leaving modern would-be gene mappers with only the more difficult problems–multi-gene, poorly defined, and ultra-rare diseases.

    As a result it doesn't sound managerial to me at all; it's part of local scientist-speak. (My programmers use it too, but that's probably cross-contamination as most of them have some genetics background.)

  14. Nathan Myers said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 11:08 pm

    PJ and Vance have it. The vacuity of these expressions lies not just in their clichedness, but in that the sentence would mean the same thing if they were omitted. As meaningless noises, their purpose is to waste the listeners' time, as a dominance display, and the listeners are justified in resenting both the wasted time and the display.

  15. Matt said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 1:19 am

    The business pages of the NYT are not necessarily a good indicator of how managers speak. In my company nobody ranked vice president or higher can talk for more than five minutes before uttering that gruesome phrase, "going forward". But I probably won't get promoted for saying that I hope this phrase will die out going forward, and we can go back to doing things "in the future" and "from now on".

  16. Karl Voelker said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 2:48 am

    It's possible that you are accidentally setting up a straw man here. Doesn't it seem likely that Scott Adams was not attacking managers' language but rather their ideas (or lack thereof)? He doesn't explicitly say that managers use phrases such as "low-hanging fruit" more frequently than others, he simply says that they speak vacuously, meaning that their speech reflects a lack of well-organized ideas. Whether or not the speech of any particular manager is filled with cliches is beside the point: what matters is whether or not managers are actually vacuous. If they are, I don't think it would surprise anyone to find that managerial speech belies that vacuity, even if that speech doesn't rely on any particular cliches.

    In short, I don't think Scott Adams was trying to make a point about language; he was trying to make a point about the way managers think. In a comic strip, one easy way to show characters' thoughts is to have them speak their minds.

  17. Nathan Myers said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 3:24 am

    I puzzled over "going forward" for decades. It doesn't mean, as I once thought, the same as "from now on". After long study, I have concluded it is meant as a sort of prayer, suggesting "please let everyone here forget all that has gone before". Of course those equipped to threaten the livelihoods of others are more successful making their prayer seem to have been granted. In the mouth of such a one it's a fundamentally nasty expression: "forget what went before if you know what's good for you."

  18. Clare said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 6:15 am

    I also think it's weird that people find new trends so irritating. At the moment "across" to mean "familiar with" is particularly popular where I work. Why should this be annoying?

    I suspect people who complain want to:

    a) Let you know they've noticed the trend;
    b) Set themselves apart from the common herd who often haven't noticed its spread; and possibly
    c) Lament a perceived lack of integrity–they believe people ought not to be susceptible to fashionable words and expressions.

    But some words and phrases have negative effects and are worthy of criticism. "Going forward" (also still very popular), as others have suggested, is often used to shut down discussion — and particularly criticism — of anything anyone else saying at the moment. "In the future" could be used that way, but it doesn't capture the same sentiment.

    ("Capture" – there's another.)

  19. Rubrick said,

    September 28, 2009 @ 3:28 am

    My vexation at such phrases (which are indeed used aplenty by managers I've had— I agree with Ran that this analysis doesn't hold much water because it fails to include transcripts of staff meetings) stems not from their inherent vacuousness but from their sad lack of originality. A phrase like "low-hanging fruit" is really quite vivid— until you've heard it many dozens of times, often from the same person at meeting after meeting. A voice inside me cries out "Come up with your own metaphor instead of reusing someone else's!"

    Probably this is just part of the natural evolution of fixed phrases. One of "at the end of the day"'s forebears, "when all is said and done", presumably long ago made the transition from poetic to clichéd to so commonplace that it no longer raises either hackles or any imagery of deeds done or words spoken; it's just another synonym for "ultimately".

    Fortunately there will always be good writers to supply our language with new gems to be slowly ground down into paste by generations of bandwagon-riders. (What the heck does a bandwagon look like, anyway?)

  20. Rubrick said,

    September 28, 2009 @ 3:35 am

    Huh, I wrote the above before reading the follow-up post.

  21. Information Gain in “Manager-Speak” « 360 said,

    September 28, 2009 @ 10:26 am

    [...] if they say, "at the end of the day."  It is the latest in a recent thread (parts 1, 2, 3) about irritating phrases being associated (often incorrectly) with irritating people (see [...]

  22. Garrett Wollman said,

    September 29, 2009 @ 9:58 pm

    I remember, or at least think I do, when "low-hanging fruit" was not yet vacant managerese. Is there any epidemiological data to suggest when this transition occurred? (I also remembered when other geeks recommended Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point to me, which now seems to be exclusively marketed to management types who understand it not.)

  23. James Donnelly said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 12:28 pm

    "This order-of-magnitude increase in relative frequency is no doubt the real source of the irritation, with vacuity and source statistics being secondary (or entirely imaginary) factors."

    I remember the first time I heard "at the end of the day" (in 1996, it was) and its surprise-attack-with-a-power-drill effect on me. This was the … oh god: the tipping point at which all the slack disappeared from my opinion of the speaker (an editor, not a manager).

    Maybe it's more that certain turns of phrase are twit magnets?

  24. Portia said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 12:24 am

    With my eye attuned to these phrases, courtesy of the Language Log, I immediately noticed both "at the end of the day" and "low-hanging fruit" infesting ( ;) ) page 2 of this NY Times article. Not to mention "the tip of the iceberg"! D**n dirty manag-, erm, journalist.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/11/health/11fertility.html?pagewanted=2

  25. Qov said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

    In my experience, the fruit near the top of the tree ripens first, possibly because it gets more sunlight, and is also more prone to bird scavenging. But in placing the ladder at the tree, you're likely to knock off the low hanging fruit anyway, so by all means, pick it first. If it's hanging right to the ground it will have bugs in it, though.

    And I like "henceforth" if I mean it, and "in the future" if I never intend to do it.

  26. Joyce Melton said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 12:14 am

    "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, the couch cushions are still going to be able to pay for our pizza."

    "Each and every evening, our porcupines come home to roost with an olive for every martini stuck to their quills."

    "We don't need to pick the hobo's pocket or sell Shinola to penguins; we can bend over and pick up the free money lying on the ground."

    Just as vacuous perhaps, but much more likely to keep your audience awake. :)

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