"At the end of the day" not management-speak

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Not, that is, unless you think that typical contemporary exponents of this linguistic register are Dick Cavett, Glamour Magazine, and Michael Bérubé.

I noted this morning that Scott Adams is far from the only one to suggest that "at the end of the day" (in the meaning "when all is said and done" or "in the final analysis") is typical of "the vacuous way managers speak".  This phrase is often cited as  "over-used" as well as "irritating", and  I did a little lunch-time experiment™ earlier today suggesting that over the past 30 years or so,  it's indeed been taking over its rhetorico-ecological niche from competing cliches.

However, an unsystematic scan of my searches seemed inconsistent with the hypothesis that it's especially likely to be used by "managers", however we define that much-maligned class.  I speculated that this might be another example of the common process of stereotype-formation, where some behavior perceived as annoying comes to be associated with a class of people who are also perceived as annoying, and the association is then repeatedly strengthened by confirmation bias. (See "The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming", 2/27/2007, for some discussion.)

Several commenters were not persuaded to abandon their prejudices, and so I decided to do a slightly more systematic check across sources, by comparing the frequency of "at the end of the day" to the frequency of "in the final analysis" in texts on the sites of 13 business, finance or management magazines, and 21 other diverse kinds of magazines and weblogs.

Here are the results, sorted by the ratio of "at the end of the day" to "in the final analysis":

SOURCE "end of day" "final analysis" RATIO
0 Dick Cavett (blog) 112 0 INF
1 Glamour Magazine 1160 1 1160.000
2 Michael Berube (blog) 1240 2 620.000
3 US magazine 242 4 60.500
4 Freakonomics (blog) 233 4 58.250
5 Management Today 284 8 35.500
6 People 324 10 32.400
7 Vanity Fair 96 3 32.000
8 The Valve (blog) 54 2 27.000
9 Black Enterprise 107 5 21.400
10 CIO Magazine 171 8 21.375
11 Andrew Sullivan (blog) 57 3 19.000
12 Columbia Journalism Review 110 7 15.714
13 Sporting News 1490 103 14.466
14 The New Yorker 99 7 14.143
15 Volokh Conspiracy (blog) 617 75 8.227
16 The Atlantic 122 15 8.133
17 Harpers 21 3 7.000
18 Fast Company 620 92 6.739
19 Business Week 2070 355 5.831
20 Business Finance 46 9 5.111
21 Red Herring 450 99 4.545
22 Forbes 1060 239 4.435
23 Psychology Today 143 40 3.575
24 HBS Working Knowledge 126 45 2.800
25 Government Executive 192 70 2.743
26 Foreign Policy 268 110 2.436
27 Inc 250 105 2.381
28 Workforce Management 263 130 2.023
29 Talking Points Memo 754 471 1.601
30 Crooked Timber (blog) 147 96 1.531
31 Chief Executive 321 260 1.235
32 Oprah.com 692 1860 0.372
33 Stanley Fish (blog) 75 421 0.178

Note that the top 10 end-of-the-day-users include just two likely outlets of management-speak (Management Today and Black Enterprise), whereas the bottom ten include five (Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, Government Executive magazine, Inc magazine, Workforce Management magazine, and Chief Executive magazine.

I'm not going to claim that "managers" and other coporate types are actually less likely to use the expression "at the end of the day" than (say) liberal intellectuals and fashion- or gossip-magazine writers are — but this tabulation certainly gives no comfort to those who hold the opposite view.

[Caveat -- these numbers were gotten from Google searches using the "site:" feature, and may be subject to some of the notorious numerical inaccuracies of that company's search results.]

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25 Comments »

  1. Stephen Downes said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 8:20 pm

    The problem here is that you are analyzing written sources, while "at the end of the day" is usually used as filler in oral expression.

    Try analyzing transcripts from business talk shows compared with, say, Oprah or Judge Judy, etc., and you may see a different result.

    [(myl) The statement "at the end of the day is usually used as a filler in oral expression" is shown to be half false by the fact that it occurs many thousands of times in the written sources that I've cited.

    it certainly also occurs in speech, but as for the theory that the transcripts of business talk shows as compared with other sorts of talk would show a different pattern, be my guest. If you believe you'll get a different result, put your effort where your mouth is.]

  2. Posts about Andrew Sullivan as of September 26, 2009 » The Daily Parr said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 10:36 pm

    [...] about Andrew Sullivan as of September 26, 2009 "At the end of the day" not management-speak – languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu 09/26/2009 Not, that is, unless you think that typical [...]

  3. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 10:37 pm

    A popular corporate parlor game, frequently played surreptitiously in auditoriums and conference rooms, is called buzzword bingo. Participants mark off magic phrases on worksheets such as "going forward" and "at the end of the day," as well as "centered around," "synergy," and other drivel masquerading as English. Such a game would not have emerged from the bowels of corporate offices had not these organizations been infected with the vacuous language of their managers. While Bloix in a previous thread does an admirable job of explaining how or why some managers gravitate toward pat expressions, more than enough managers use content-free language to have established such discourse as an execrable art form. True, others may use the same expressions with dignity and purpose, but such use does nothing to redeem the many thousands who speak without thought.

  4. The effin' bear said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 11:51 pm

    I have noticed the statement, along with "the bottom line is…", appearing a lot in the speech of partisan pundits and "analysts" on news networks. When confronted with a strong argument against their case, rather than address it they will simply repeat their main point, prefaced by that phrase.

    [(myl) You might well be right, but the trouble with "noticing" things is that it's a process highly subject to confirmation bias, especially when it involves the association of behaviors and and/or groups that are salient because they're perceived as irritating.]

  5. Philip Spaelti said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 12:13 am

    The problem that I have with what you are doing here (as in the original experiment) is that the question you are asking is, is this phrase typical of managers, as opposed to say entertainment professionals, or academics. But the original Dilbert cartoon was certainly only claiming that this type of expression is typical of managers, as opposed to other company employees (in Dilbert's case engineers, etc.). In an academic context, the similar situation might be whether such a phrase might be more typical of the speech of administrators as opposed to that of academic personnel.

    [(myl) Fair enough; there are many possible hypotheses about the distribution of this phrase, and this little experiment proves none of them, and disproves few.

    But my own guess -- which I think is also the null hypothesis -- is that the distribution of the phrase is quite idiosyncratic, with a great deal of individual variation among the members of a given class, whether corporate managers or liberal bloggers. And I also suspect that the popular association of this phrase with corporate managers is rather like the popular association of jews with avarice, blacks with shiftlessness, WASPs with inexpressiveness, women with talkativeness, and so on, namely a stereotype subject to confirmation bias. My little experiment might have tended to disconfirm this null hypothesis, but didn't, so I see it as tending to support my position.

    I could well be wrong, but I'm not going to change my mind just because someone points out to me yet another way that a different experiment might save the stereotype. ]

  6. MikeE. said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 5:27 am

    I get similar ratios (about 4) for Scientific American, Wikipedia, and The Sun, but ratios below 1 for Nature and The Spectator. Horse and Hound gets a ratio of about 80.

    Perhaps it depends on how much the writer is into Heavy Metal (there is, apparently, an album called "At the End of the Day").

  7. Phil said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 5:52 am

    I'm a Brit, and '"At the end of the day" not management-speak' is to me a headline on par with '"Grazie" not French'.
    Here, the stereotype of its use links it strongly not to management-speak but to the sporting world, especially football (soccer), as part of the padding-speech of pundits and the banalities of post-match interviewees – what someone has dubbed 'puntabanta' (a new one on me) at Urban Dictionary, with the illustrative example, "At the end of the day, at this level, it's a game of two halves."
    And here it is in a 2005 article about the Premier League getting involved with literacy programmes: "Football – it's a funny old game, a game of two halves and, at the end of the day, we'll take each game as it comes. All clichés I know, but examples, on a basic level, of the relationship football has always enjoyed with language."

  8. Stephen Jones said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 7:17 am

    The problem here is that you are analyzing written sources, while "at the end of the day" is usually used as filler in oral expression.

    The percentage of written material to spoken material in the COCA appears to be about 4:1 (deduced by doing searches for 'a' and 'to' and looking at the proportions).

    For 'at the end of the day' it is 1,343:1,078

    In the BNC the proportion of written to spoken is about 11:1

    For 'at the end of the day' the proportion is 428:332

    So the phrase is considerably more frequent in the spoken than the written. It is however still commonly used in academic writing (a grand total of 135 hits) even if that is a proportion eight times less than in spoken English.

    So, as Mark says, the statement is half-wrong.

    I think 'at the end of the day' is associated with management speak because it is a phrase that has become bleached of meaning, and 'bleached of meaning' is exactly (and often rightly) what management speak is viewed as, so the phrase is rather standing as a symbol than in its own right.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 8:48 am

    I agree with Philip Spaelti that the relevant contrast in context would be between the usage of the Dilbert faction (engineers/techies/nerds) and their traditional tribal adversaries, often known as The Suits. By analogy, if the context is a discussion of differences between U.S. English and Canadian English, it doesn't necessarily matter whether or not an alleged "distinctively Canadian" usage is even more common in New Zealand or South African English, only whether the claim that it is more common in Canada than the U.S. stands up to empirical scrutiny.

    That said, myl's complaint that his empirical research ought to be met with other research rather than untested hypotheses trying to vindicate the stereotype on alternative grounds has some obvious merit. So the research agenda for the Scott Adams Defense Fund (which I will propose but leave to others to implement) would be to identify a sample of text corpora likely to reflect the usage of the Dilberts of the world (maybe the archives of websites devoted to obsessive discussion about the prehistory of Linux, or Star-Wars-action-figure collecting?) and see how usage there compares to corpora likely to reflect Suitspeak.

  10. Peter Taylor said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 10:05 am

    Ratio between uses of two phrases is a horrible way of ranking the sources because a tiny change in the denominator gives a large change in the result. Number of uses per word written might give useful results; but it seems to me that the null hypothesis you should be testing is "The probability that a person X uses the phrase 'At the end of the day' [optionally insert: with frequency of at least f] is independent of whether X is a manager."

    [(myl) It's true that such ratios are quite unstable, especially when one or the other term gets to be very small -- that's why I gave the raw counts as well, which I think are more meaningful, and can be evaluated via e.g. a chi squared test. (In comparing Michael Bérubé's blog and Stanley Fish's blog, for example, we get X-squared = 1376.863, df = 1, p-value < 2.2e-16 -- for whatever reason, they really are different in this respect, in a way that can't be explained as a chance fluctuation.)

    Frequency-per-word-written is not really right for this problem, because different topics/registers/styles have very different basic frequencies of using any sort of "summative" construction at all, and you'd like to be able to normalize for that. (Also, total word counts are not available from the web search tools accessible to me.)

    In my earlier post, I used the sum of four different "summative" phrases as the denominator, which helps a bit. You could add even more such phrases (e.g. "all in all", "on the whole", etc.), especially if you were willing to devote more than 45 minutes to the research.

    Despite the many inadequacies of this investigation, though, I think it increases the plausibility of the view that "at the end of the day" has been increasing in frequency relative to its rhetorical peers, over the past 30 years; and that its rate of use relative to its peers remains quite variable across individuals and publications, without any clear-cut indication that (for example) business- or management-oriented texts favor it.]

  11. Rick S said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    I suspect that no linguistic analysis of corpora can reveal what's really at the heart of this peeve. What Dilbert bemoans is that managers in business meetings generally try to keep discussion focused on business goals, even while their subordinates are stuck on technical problems. Such meetings are a waste of the detail-oriented employees' time, because no problems are being addressed, and are frustrating because rather than facilitating problem solving, the manager with an insistent "end of the day" viewpoint only succeeds in heightening the sense of urgency and level of stress. That's the real useless-manager stereotype here (one that is fairly often justified in my experience), and "at the end of the day" is merely a symbol of the manager's failure to lead in such situations.

    I speculate that this phrase becomes the peeve-target because it's trotted out by the manager at just that moment when the employees are trying to switch the focus to their problems. From their point of view, they're just at the point of making headway when the manager intervenes, dashing their hopes. From his point of view, the employees are drifting off into minutiae, and he is doing his job of keeping them focused on meeting business goals.

    The use of the phrase outside business meetings probably has little or no inherent emotional impact, but to often-frustrated employees it becomes attached to feelings of stress. The very phrase becomes poisoned, in other words, and the taint is extended to outside uses.

    So why is it "at the end of the day" rather than "in the final analysis" that gets the blame? Perhaps because, as Mark's analysis suggests, it's the phrase of choice by managers in the business meeting context. Looking at just the business-oriented publications in the table above, I get a median ratio of about 5:1. This is suggestive, though of course it may have no relevance to actual verbal frequencies in meetings, which is where the negative feelings attach. It would probably be more revealing to study videotapes or transcripts of meetings.

    [(myl) I think it's more likely that "at the end of the day" is an irritant because it's been increasingly rapidly in mindshare ("mouthshare"?), not only among managers but pretty much across the board -- see the graph here, discussed here.]

  12. Michael Berube said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

    these numbers were gotten from Google searches using the "site:" feature, and may be subject to some of the notorious numerical inaccuracies of that company's search results.

    I'll say! I checked your figures for my blog, because "at the end of the day" is not a phrase I use often. Sure enough, it turns up in the comment section, in the work of guest bloggers, and once or twice when I use it to mean "when the day is over," as in "One of the other curious things about golf spectatorship is that everyone gets compressed, accordion-like, into the last few holes at the end of the day."

    So there. Going forward, I'd have to say that my findings are a real game changer.

    [(myl) Indeed. Either you've established that your commenters and guest bloggers are a nest of jargon-mongering corporate managers, or else you've assisted in my reductio ad absurdum proof that the alleged connection between corporate managers and the phrase "at the end of the day" is empirically empty social stereotyping. I prefer the second alternative, of course.]

  13. The other Mark P said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

    I think Rick S has an important point.

    To back that up, I would add that many managers feel the need to say something at a meeting, even when they have nothing to actually say. They seem to feel they have to be seen to lead.

    Since they are talking, but having nothing to actually add, their speech invariably involves lots of of meaningless drivel.

    My experience is that the sort of people who push to the top also try to dominate meetings. Since they don't tend to have more technical material to add, their language also tends to have too much filler.

    But it happens even for the non-ambitious. When a technical person becomes a manager, too many find that they are not equipped to lead a discussion properly. So they waffle.

    As Rick S says, these vacuous statements come at a time when the lower ranks are most annoyed by them. I've never been peeved by any particular phrase, but I have spent the last part of many meetings just wanting the talking to stop so I can do my job.

    So more chance of confirmation bias, especially to verbal use. It's not that the phrases are used more in speech, but that they come at a time when they are least appreciated. They are attributed to managers in particular, but only because managers tend to be still talking when others want only to leave.

  14. Peter Taylor said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 6:20 pm

    Frequency-per-word-written is not really right for this problem, because different topics/registers/styles have very different basic frequencies of using any sort of "summative" construction at all, and you'd like to be able to normalize for that.

    That depends on what you're testing. If everyone uses the same phrases in the same proportions when speaking on the same topics and in the same registers, but different groups of people favour different topics and registers, then a perception that they use different phrases could be justified.

    You're clearly interested in which summative phrases people use. Rich S seems to be arguing that managers are more likely to use summative phrases. I can well believe that the latter was Scott Adams' point.

    I argue that the first question to ask is whether hearing someone use the phrase "At the end of the day" conveys information on whether they are likely to be a manager, and that the corresponding null hypothesis requires either un-normalised usage counts or usage counts normalised by word count. If that null hypothesis is rejected then normalisation is useful in the follow-up, holding different variables constant to ask which of them account for the difference. The information required is, of course, too detailed for a breakfast experiment.

  15. lynneguist said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 8:23 pm

    When I moved to South Africa in 1993, I was struck by (what seemed to me as) everyone saying 'at the end of the day' all the time–struck and annoyed. I think there is a tendency to regard a lot new-to-you cliches (new in their clicheyness, at least) as 'management speak' these days, as that's the current vilified register. I get a lot of emails from British folks wanting me to address horrible 'American management-speak' or 'AmE corporate jargon' that's come into BrE, and that's included things that are pretty far from managerial–e.g. 'at this time' and 'can I get' as a request.

  16. tablogloid said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

    At the end of the day, "at the end of the day" will never surpass "whatever".

  17. Franz Bebop said,

    September 28, 2009 @ 12:24 am

    Trying to resolve the question "Is it management-speak" may not be quite as interesting as resolving a different question, namely, "What exactly makes these phrases so annoying?"

    Sometimes, even though I'm just as irked as anyone else by these turns of phrase, I have a hard time explaining to myself exactly why.

    A. Moving forward we will no longer allow you to expense taxi fares.
    B. In the future we will no longer allow you to expense taxi fares.
    C. From now on we will no longer allow you to expense taxi fares.
    D. Starting today we will no longer allow you to expense taxi fares.

    Why is A more annoying than B or C or D? It's easy to feel it, but tough to explain.

    A few months ago, Geoff Pullum posted a note about the speech of police officers, and wondered why they talk about "subjects suffering fatal incidents in residences" when instead they can just describe people dying in houses. In some ways it's a similar sort of thing: habitual circumlocutions that seem superfluous and indeed a bit weaselly. One supposes that they must serve some sort of functional role, otherwise they would just vanish.

    It may be that "managers" (or whoever) are trying to display color and cleverness in their talk, and they are failing. Maybe "moving forward" is novel, but not novel enough, and what pains us is that we can feel lack of novelty, but apparently the speaker can't.

  18. Adrian said,

    September 28, 2009 @ 5:10 am

    Mark is right.

    http://idlish.blogspot.com/2009/09/verbal-tics.html

  19. EM said,

    September 28, 2009 @ 6:31 am

    As a BrE (or at least ScE) speaker, I'd agree with Phil above that in Britain "at the end of the day" is overwhelmingly thought of as stereotypical of football punditry/management.

  20. greg said,

    September 28, 2009 @ 8:57 am

    As I just mentioned in the other thread (as I'm just catching up on threads from the weekend), "At the End of the Day" is one of the notable songs in the musical version of Les Miserables, which debuted in Paris 1980 and first played on London's West End in 1985.

  21. Tom Recht said,

    September 28, 2009 @ 11:30 am

    Franz, I think what's annoying in your "moving forward" example is not just that managers are trying to give the impression of being clever, but that they're trying to give the impression of being Dynamic! Proactive! Entrepreneurial! or whatever the buzzword du jour is, when all they're really doing is telling you they won't pay for your cab fare.

  22. BenHemmens said,

    September 28, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

    A' the end o' the dee… it's a' aboot ge'in the ba' in the back o' the ne'.

    "win, lose or draw you'll get hame for yer tea just the same… but Hamish stokes young men's dream" (c) Michel Marra

  23. Omar said,

    September 28, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

    This post seems illogical to me. You're trying to refute the claim that that phrase is typical for managers by showing it's also typical for other people!

    [(myl) No, I'm looking for evidence that managers use this phrase a lot, by scanning sources like Chief Executive magazine, Workforce Management magazine, etc. Result: negative. In a later post, I try to address someone's request for evidence that use of this phrase provides evidence in favor of its user being a manager as opposed to some other sort of person, by scanning a large corpus of diverse material. Result: negative. You're joining a lengthening list of commenters who disagree with the conclusion, and claim that if I did a different experiement I'd find a different answer, but offer no evidence beyond your own opinions.]

    You're confusing "managers are likely to say this" with "someone who says this is likely to be a manager".

    [(myl) No -- in my later post, I'm responding to a reader's request for evidence as to "whether hearing someone use the phrase 'At the end of the day' conveys information on whether they are likely to be a manager". In this post, I'm looking for any evidence that manager-rich sources are especially likely to use this phrase.]

    Even if Dick Cavett and many others overuse the phrase it still can by typical of manager-speak.

    [(myl) Maybe so, but even a little tiny bit of evidence would be nice. In particular, if it were typical of manager-speak, wouldn't we expect to see it heavily over-used in magazines like Chief Executive and Workforce Management? I'd be happy to be persuaded, if only someone would give me some evidence.]

    Is it typical for linguists to get logic wrong? Yes, but it's also typical of humans in general.

    [(myl) Our customer relations department stands ready, as always, to refund double your subscription fees in case of less than full satisfaction.]

  24. Jim said,

    September 28, 2009 @ 6:30 pm

    To me, "in the final analysis" seems much more distant future and much more "firm end of things". "At the end of the day" is just a temporary wrap-up — I work in an Agile/Scrum scenario, so "end of the day" has only minimal impact. So I'm not surprised at all to see many sources heavily imbalanced to the less intense, more immediate one.

    Of course, I also easily mentally transpose "final anlysis" to "final solution", and that stop me from using that version completely.

  25. Ken Brown said,

    September 29, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

    EM said: "As a BrE (or at least ScE) speaker, I'd agree with Phil above that in Britain "at the end of the day" is overwhelmingly thought of as stereotypical of football punditry/management."

    Google gives me 503,000,000 hits on "end of the day" and only 853,000 for the much rarer "game of two halves" which is certainly mainly used as a parody of football commentary (and I supposed originated in some genuine utterance once upon a time).

    But there are 183,000 for "game of two halves" AND "end of the day". Implying that almost a quarter of web pages that use the phrase "game of two halves" also use "end of the day"

    That doesn't tell us whether or not it really is unusually common in football-speak, but I think it does tell us that people who are parodying football speech often use it in their parodies.

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