Roll over Joyce Cary

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… and tell Lady Gregory the news. According to David Adams, writing in the Irish Times,  "Attacks on the language are rising, basically":

IT’S OFTEN the little things in life that can get to you. Take “basically”, for instance. I cannot be alone in having grown to detest the very sound of this word. It has become so annoyingly pervasive in the spoken language, you sometimes wonder if we are now incapable of relaying even the most mundane information without employing it. As in, “Basically, I was walking down the road”, or, “Basically, he was standing there”.

Only good manners and not wanting to be thought a complete lunatic stop some of us from screaming: “There is no ‘basically’ about it. Either you were walking down the road or you weren’t, or he was standing there or he wasn’t.”

While maintaining this tenuous hold on his sanity, Mr. Adams is also seething because in the "blogosphere" (a word he carefully places in scare quotes), "words are regularly invented, mangled or forced against their will from nouns into verbs, or vice versa".  It's a lucky thing for his peace of mind that he wasn't around in the 16th century.

His penultimate peeve is prosodic (and is thus, by general rule, graced by a missing comma):

Continuing on the theme of annoyances is it only my imagination, or is the high rising terminal (HRT) habit that some of us picked up from watching too many episodes of Neighbours and Home and Away on the wane?

HRT, as you probably know only too well, is where sentences end with an upward intonation, so that every utterance sounds like a question posed by an Australian.

Since the origin of this pattern is apparently in a geographical cluster of English varieties that includes part of Ireland (see here and here), it's interesting to see Mr. Adams identifying it as an import from Australia. Perhaps this means that the Australian version really is phonetically different — though I haven't been able to find any way to measure it that shows this to be true — or perhaps this is like the Pennsylvania student once interviewed on television about uptalk, who said something like "Well, my friends and I don't talk that way? I think that's something that the kids in New Jersey do? But I don't think you'll hear it around here?"

Adams continues:

I certainly hope it is on the way out. I suspect, though, I’ve only stopped noticing through being distracted by another antipodean import that appears to be gaining ground. I speak of that increasingly common opening to a usually uninvited declaration by mostly self-obsessed people of what they intend doing or saying next: “Do you know what . . . ”

This is the most puzzling of Adams' peeves. He's complaining about Ireland recently importing from Australia something that's been a standard rhetorical device since the time of Plautus. Thus Henry Baker's 1739 translation of Molière's The blunderer:

Trufalin: Hark'e, dost thou know what I have just been doing?
Mascaril: No; but certainly, if you think proper, I shan't remain long in Ignorance.

Language must indeed be a sad state among the Irish, if they need to send to Australia and New Zealand for this ancient device.


Update — several people have suggested that I add the latest Partially Clips comic to this post:

It swaps the histrionics from one side to the other, but still…

I thought I'd also observe that (as a matter of mere fact) use of basically isn't even close to the point where "we are now incapable of relaying even the most mundane information without employing it". Specifically, according to blogpulse.com, the proportion of blog posts containing it is well under 1% (about 0.65%, more exactly):

Note the weekly rhythm, by the way — it's easy to see why this applies to beer, but this oscillation is more interesting because less obvious…

And as usual, the discussion in MWDEU is a sensible one:



78 Comments

  1. Bloix said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 10:37 am

    But "basically" genuinely is annoying, isn't it? If it has any meaning at all, it means, "don't believe what I've just told you, because you can't rely on it." Suppose you are responsible for a project with a firm deadline that's coming up fast. Which of following gives you comfort:

    You: Has Jack finished his part of the project? A colleague: Yes.

    You: Has Jack finished his part of the project? A colleague: Basically, yes.

    What does "basically, yes" mean? It appears to mean yes, but more likely it means no. The one thing it definitely means is that you don't have a response to your question that you can rely on. An informative response would be "no," or "not quite," or "I don't know." "Basically, yes" means, "I'm going to pretend to tell you what I think you want to hear but actually I'm not going to tell you anything at all." It's straight out of Dilbert.

    [(myl) Or straight out of Ben Goldacre's column:

    I mean, sometimes "yes" or "no" is not enough. And if you believe that "yes" or "no" is close enough for the purposes behind the question, but still not quite true, then "basically yes" or "basically no" might be a good choice. Substituting "in essence" or "in all respects that matter here" " or some other hedge might help Mr. Adams maintain his equilibrium, but it wouldn't change the content from this point of view. And if someone wants to be a misleading weasel, there are plenty of other expressions that will work equally well.

    Adams' complaint doesn't seem to be that basically is a weasel word, but rather that it's used too much, and perhaps has become bleached to the point where it hardly means anything at all. Maybe so, but it's interesting that it should annoy people so much more than essentially equivalent words like essentially.]

  2. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 10:57 am

    "it's interesting to see Mr. Adams identifying it as an import from Australia."

    Stephen Fry is quite fond of expounding on Australian intonation and its creeping influence on British English. It's possible Adams picked up the idea from Fry.

  3. Mark P said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    Isn't "basically" pretty much like "you know" and "like"? They can be annoying if overused (especially by individuals and groups we don't like), but, basically, so what? I try to refrain from complaining about my own pet peeves, at least in public, to avoid appearing a bigger fool and ignorant to boot. Not to mention unoriginal.

  4. Uly said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 11:06 am

    But "basically" genuinely is annoying, isn't it?

    Maybe to you. But not to everybody – and to proscribe language for everybody because you think it's a little annoying is a bit over the top.

    An informative response would be "no," or "not quite," or "I don't know."

    "Basically, yes" does not mean "no", and it does not mean "I don't know". It means something close to "not quite" or "almost". If you understand those phrases, you should have no trouble understanding the first phrase.

  5. Joanna said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 11:08 am

    I'd say 'basically' does have meaning– it indicates there's more to the story, but for the purposes relevant to the conversation, the answer is X. For something like finishing a project, there may be little details not yet complete– the actual physical printing-up of the paper, some minor tweaks yet to be made, etc. Yet the bulk of the work has been done, which is presumably what the inquirer is interested in. A 'no' answer would be strictly true, but much less informative than a qualified 'yes', because there's a whole gamut of possibilities consistent with 'no', from 'never started' to 'stuck in early stages' to 'wait, what project?', etc. 'Basically' flags that such qualification exists, without you having to go into the whole big long story about it right there and then.

  6. Laura said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 11:37 am

    What a very bizarre article. I know we shouldn't take these people too seriously, but he does have some odd opinions. Speaking of the practice of verbing, he says Gerry Adams "has probably picked up this habit of willy-nilly word creation from the internet"… as if it were a new thing.
    And incidentally, I find he over-uses 'willy-nilly' – twice in this article alone. Should we ban that?

  7. Breffni said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    David Adams is in fact from Northern Ireland, which is one of the regions with rising tone. But it wouldn't surprise me if he does perceive a difference between the intonation of his own dialect and "uptalk": I think there is one, though I can't characterise it. Northern Ireland accent here.

  8. Breffni said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 11:48 am

    By which I mean, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MCA2VDBjs0&feature=related.

  9. Alex said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 11:49 am

    Basically, basically is a hedge in the discourse. People who speak out against it may, underlyingly, be unhappy with conversational partners who hedge their answers.

  10. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

    Basically, I think people get extremely annoyed by discourse particles: basically, like, you know, etc. Prescriptivists seem to feel that all discourse should be planned out beforehand and delivered in a dry Dickensian style devoid of corrections, recalculations, or inclusions of the interlocutor.

  11. TB said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 12:30 pm

    This reminds me of teaching English in Japan, where certain mistakes or misunderstandings are curiously widespread, "basically" being one of them. Most of my students said "basically" when they meant "generally". For example, they would say, "Japanese people basically like natto." When I first started I thought they meant "more or less" but I soon figured out they meant "as a general rule". I often wondered about the origin of these errors. I don't know anything really about linguistics, but it seems to be different than the common grammatical mistakes. I doubt there has been a study done about it but I would be very interested to read it if there were.

  12. Bloix said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

    "Yet the bulk of the work has been done, which is presumably what the inquirer is interested in."

    What the inquirer is interested in is whether the part of the project is finished, complete, d-o-n-e done, moved off of Jack's desk and on to the person who needs it. The inquirer is not asking, is the bulk of the work done, or is the intellectual work done? That's not done. In these contexts, "basically, yes" generally means "no" and it's an intensely irritating way of saying so.

    "Prescriptivists seem to feel that all discourse should be planned out beforehand and delivered in a dry Dickensian style."

    People who talk for a living – like lawyers, college professors, TV talking heads and politicians – should be able to deliver a cogent, meaningful, grammatically correct sentence without larding it with hedges and self-interruptions. It's their job and it's not that hard to do. What's fine over coffee is not fine on the news. Yes, I know that the news people like to pretend that they are friends who've just dropped by for a chat, but they're not and I wish they'd stop it.

    But why am I arguing with someone who thinks that Dickensian and dry are synonyms?

  13. Dillon said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

    Maybe to you. But not to everybody – and to proscribe language for everybody because you think it's a little annoying is a bit over the top.

    I’ve encountered this attitude a few times on Language Log, but I don’t really get it. I understand why people stupidly claiming that their pet peeves are “ungrammatical” would annoy someone with an interest in linguistics, but why does that make proscription always a Bad Thing?

    If I found a particular word or speech pattern grating, then I think I would be well within my rights to try and get others to stop using it. (As long as I don’t claim to have peered into the heart of the One True English and seen that it was so, that is.) Of course, odds are I wouldn’t actually change the way anyone spoke, but why is it over the top to try? Who knows, maybe I would actually change a handful of people’s habits, and thus make listening to the speech of others a slightly more pleasant experience for myself.

    [(myl) With respect, I think you might be confused about the traditional meaning of proscription, which is "decree of condemnation to death or banishment, … Denunciation, interdiction, prohibition by authority; exclusion or rejection by public order". At least, I hope you are.

    Seriously, you're within your rights to complain about things that you find annoying, though good intellectual and moral hygiene suggests trying to be clear about what you're doing and why. ]

  14. Sili said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

    During my brief stay in Moscow, we pretty quickly started to refer to the Norwegian group's guide as "Basically", since he started every second sentence with that word.

    Or at least so it felt – it's much the same with some "Like" people. I have, basically, only known one who was really prone to it. (But she was contagious …)

  15. Breffni said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

    Alex –

    Basically, basically is a hedge in the discourse. People who speak out against it may, underlyingly, be unhappy with conversational partners who hedge their answers.

    Ah well, you see, David Adams is one of those "bluff, straight-talking, and honest (if inflexible) unionists" and his occasional conversational partners are "duplicitous, amoral nationalists" (as Gary Peatling characterises the Northern Ireland stereotypes), so it all fits very nicely.

    Bloix – "what the inquirer is interested in" is not something that can be stipulated in vacuo. In reply to a friendly conversational inquiry, for instance, a clipped "Yes" or "No" is likely to be perceived as uncooperative and underinformative. "Basically, yes" is a likely prelude to an elaboration in such cases. Same applies to plenty of other contexts.

    More generally, there's evidence that discourse markers aid comprehension. There's this, for example:

    "In five experiments, we looked at the on-line spontaneous speech comprehension effects of one discourse marker, oh. We found that recognition of words was faster after oh than when the oh was either excised and replaced by a pause or excised entirely. We also found that semantic verification of words heard earlier in the discourse was faster after oh than when the oh was either excised and replaced by a pause or excised entirely, but only when the test point was downstream from the oh. Results demonstrate that oh is not only a potential signal to addressees, as has been suggested by corpora analyses, but that it is in fact used by addressees to help them integrate information in spontaneous talk." – Fox Tree, J. E., & Schrock, J. C. (1999). Discourse Markers in Spontaneous Speech: Oh What a Difference an Oh Makes. Journal of Memory and Language, 40(2), 280-295.

  16. Stephen Jones said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

    What the inquirer is interested in is whether the part of the project is finished, complete, d-o-n-e done, moved off of Jack's desk and on to the person who needs it. The inquirer is not asking, is the bulk of the work done, or is the intellectual work done?

    We haven't enough context to know exactly what the enquirer is interested in, but what he has got is a reply that tells him that the work is more or less completed but that there are still some fine points to deal with. It is a perfectly economic way of conveying that information and it is up to the enquirer to ask for further details if he needs them. It is idiotic to blame the word because it doesn't convey the answer you want.

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

    It's nice that the writer realizes that those who act on their usage peeves by yelling at random strangers who do not comply with him may be taken to be ill-mannered or mentally unstable. That's progress right there! Whether "basically" (treated as synonymous with "almost entirely" or "more or less") is a bug or a feature may depend on context. If Bloix were to ask a colleague what the subject of a meeting or conference call had been, it might be the case that "Basically X" would be a more efficient answer than "Mostly X, but we also briefly discussed Y and said we really needed to talk about Z sometime soon but this wasn't the best time." The hedge signals that there's an additional level of detail the speaker thinks the listener may not actually want or need to know while giving the listener the option to request that additional detail by a follow-up question. Obviously, for a question where Bloix thinks only an unequivocal yes or no answer would be appropriate, any hedge will be irksome, in which case his interlocutors should consider avoiding modern jargon in favor of the classic literary form "up to a point, Lord Copper."

    Lawyers, of course, are trained to be precise about when they're being imprecise, leading to jargonish phrases like "on or about the sixth of November" or "all or substantially all," not to mention something like "to the best of my knowledge/recollection" which could in principle be added as a hedge for every single statment ever uttered that's not intended to be false. This may be irksome when it spills over to other language-use contexts where their interlocutors would actually tolerate a degree of imprecision in the actual truth value of statements in return for less hedging in the phrasing.

  18. Nathan Myers said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

    Complaining about overused words is like complaining about hairstyles. There will be others to complain about, instead, soon enough.

  19. Bloix said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

    But "basically" almost always implies that the speaker is suppressing something that he or she doesn't want to tell you, but also doesn't want to be accused of having hidden from you. "I was just standing there" versus "I was just standing there, basically." Which one could encompass, "I was smirking and pointing"? "Jack is done with his part of the project" versus "Jack is basically done with his part of the project." Which one could mean, Jack is seriously behind and you won't receive his work product until the end of the week? "It was a productive meeting" versus, "It was basically a productive meeting." Which one could mean, "the client was really pissed off but we think we managed to calm him down"?

    Whenever I hear "basically" I automatically think, what am I not being told? It's a tell, like "frankly" – a word that almost always means, "I'm lying to you." "Basically" – whose literal meaning is close to "essentially" – usually means, "this purports to be a summary of what you want to know, but it is deficient in some essential respect."

  20. Rubrick said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

    I assume the Keepers of the Log know, but perhaps readers don't, that that Partially Clips was specifically dedicated to Language Log (see the author's comments under the scissors icon on the Partially Clips page).

  21. Ray Girvan said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    dost thou know what

    For me, this construct seems perfectly normal as a "handshake" to open a topic after a length of silence, to confirm the other person heard you and is ready to converse:

    A: "Do you know what?"
    B: "What?"
    A: "Mr X is moving to Tasmania."

    In Birmingham, where I lived for some years, I stopped saying it, because such exchanges regularly (and tediously) went:

    Me: "Y'know what?"
    B: "Yes, he's standing outside the Town Hall with his hand out."

  22. Mark F said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

    I think Bloix is mistaken in saying that

    "basically" almost always implies that the speaker is suppressing something that he or she doesn't want to tell you, but also doesn't want to be accused of having hidden from you.

    If you ask someone a question, and they know you will be upset with them if they don't say X, and they say "Basically X", then yes, they are likely being evasive. There are lots of other situations where people say "basically", though. Consider the tour guide.

  23. Dillon said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    With respect, I think you might be confused about the traditional meaning of proscription…

    Errm, yeah – well, that's a bit embarrassing. I meant prescription, of course.

    As to the second post you linked to: I just don't see what the problem is with naming and shaming about language any more than I do with, say, naming and shaming about fashion or music. I would think that the real prescriptivist sin lies in claiming the grammatical high ground, not in trying to get people to talk differently. LL commenters sometimes seem to have serious problem with even the latter, however, and I was hoping someone might be able to tell me why. Do the people who react negatively when someone says that a certain sentence structure is bad respond the same way when someone says a type of music is bad? It doesn't seem so to me, but feel free to set me straight

    For the record, I can’t imagine partaking in such naming and shaming myself. One of the reasons I read LL regularly is because I find novel uses of language more fascinating than irritating. I just don’t understand this aversion to it. (I hope this isn't too off topic – sorry if so)

  24. D.O. said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

    And what about that weekly pattern? Maybe people who do not use "basically" as much blog more on the weekends. Why? Or maybe blogposts on weekends are shorter? To check the latter one, I took a word "near", which, I thought without any empirical basis, is uniformly used by English speakers. It is twice as frequent as "basically" and pattern persists, but it is less pronounced (this explanation should work better for infrequent words). But with the word "time", which is much more frequent (about 11% of all blogposts, but it is still not frequent enough to skew the pattern significantly) and again, without any empirical evidence, is uniformly used, the pattern is clear again. Is there any way to check "the blogposts on weekends are shorter" hypothesis directly?

  25. Nathan Myers said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

    Bloix: When I say "frankly", I'm telling you that you may not like what I'm about to say. If you take it to mean it's untrue as well as unpleasant, that might make you feel better, but that's you lying to yourself.

  26. Ellen said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

    So, Bloix, it seems you think that those who use "basically" are lying.

  27. Edward Carney said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

    The oscillation in the trend line in blogpulse.com occurs quite often. In addition to "basically," I tried "however," "therefore," "primarily," and "especially" They all show this cyclic pattern, and the curves are surprisingly congruent. Seems most likely to be an artifact. Perhaps, it arises because of the data collection methodology, the specific blogs searched, etc. In the absence of a good explanation, I'd be less than confident of the usefulness of these data when gathered from non-specific words. It might be more useful when gathering information on names (Cheney, Rumsfeld) or words in the news (H1N1, thriller).

    [(myl) It might be an artifact, but it ain't necessarily so. It's clear that weekend blogging is different from weekday blogging, and it's obviously why this leads to oscillatory usage of "beer" — but from we know about the relative frequency of different words in different registers and genres of writing, we should expect to see 7-day patterns in other sorts of words as well, even function words.]

  28. Ralph Hickok said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

    @Bloix:
    Rhett Butler was lying to Scarlett when he said he didn't give a damn?

  29. Liam said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 4:35 pm

    @Dillon:

    As someone with a music background, I tend to react negatively if someone says something like "Bluegrass is the music of uneducated hicks," or "Bagpipes are instruments of torture" (and statements like these are common).

    I think anytime someone has given a particular subject a lot of time and thought, they're not likely to welcome such extreme opinions if they're not the result of similar amounts of time and thought (and they rarely are). I imagine a lot of LL commenters feel the same way about their areas of study.

  30. Adrian Bailey said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

    When it comes from the mouths of BBC reporters, I find "basically" pointless and patronising. Guys, I _know_ that you can't tell me everything about the subject in 30 seconds.

  31. Jonathan Cohen said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

    I may be dense, but I've always used "basically" in the sense of "essentially," "primarily," or "for the most part." So: "The United States has what is basically a two-party election system." There are more than two political parties in the United States, but there are only two which are electorally significant. Saying :"basically" in this context does not strike me as an equivocation or imprecision about how many political parties there actually are. Rather, it indicates that there is an operative generalization which nonetheless has some loose ends which don't merit space to be tied up in the sentence. What merits stigma here?

  32. Lachlan Mackenzie said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

    Chris Butler has done corpus-based study of the English adverbs "basically", "essentially" and "fundamentally", and their congeners in other languages:

    Butler, C.S. 2008a. 'Basically speaking': A corpus-based analysis of three English adverbs and their formal equivalents in Spanish. In Gómez-González, M.A., J.L. Mackenzie and E.M. González Álvarez (eds), Current trends in Contrastive Linguistics: Functional and cognitive perspectives. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins. 147-176.

    Butler, C.S. 2008b. Three English adverbs and their formal equivalents in Romance languages: a corpus-based collocational study. Languages in Contrast 8(1), 107-124.

    Butler, C.S. 2008c. The subjectivity of basically in British English. In Jesús Romero-Trillo (ed.) Pragmatics and Corpus Linguistics: A mutualistic entente. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 37-63.

  33. Fred said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

    The graph shows that globally, things are basically cooling.

  34. Bloix said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

    Nathan Myers – the use of "frankly" as the introduction to a lie is so well-known that it's a joke. See, e.g., Michael Kinsley in Slate,
    http://www.slate.com/id/90130/

    "How can you tell when a politician is lying? Don't say, "When his mouth is open and words are coming out." That is a cheap shot, quite frankly, and unworthy of readers of this column. A better clue is when he or she is using the word "frankly" or—especially—"quite frankly.""

    Frankly is always used when the speaker is falsely claiming to be telling unpalatable truths, and always in a situation in which the speaker is pretentiously claiming the moral high ground of honesty while in fact being offensive and self-serving. You explain the usage very well, Nathan.

    Ralph – Rhett is being intentionally insulting. I suppose in addition to an introduction to a lie, "frankly" as an introduction to an insult is also possible. "Frankly, Nathan sucks." Yes, that works. The one thing "frankly" never is, is an antroduction to a frank admission of anything. It's always self-serving. "Frankly, we made an error in estimating the training requirements." Never. "Frankly, your staff was unable to get up to speed in the time alloted." Yes, indeed.

    Ellen – no, users of "basically" are not usually lying. They are usually shoveling shit, which is a different phenomenon. See, e.g., "On Bullshit," by Harry Frankfurt, http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2005/may/12/internationaleducationnews.highereducation1

  35. Simon Cauchi said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 5:56 pm

    @ Nathan Myers: "Complaining about overused words is like complaining about hairstyles. There will be others to complain about, instead, soon enough."

    How true. And words that were once complained about remain in use. Consider, for example, Feste's "Who you are and what you would are out of my welkin. I might say 'element' but the word is over-worn."

  36. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

    It is curious that Adams's complaint narrows in on "news or current affairs programmes," while his examples read like strawmen:

    “Basically, I was walking down the road”, or, “Basically, he was standing there”.

    It is hard to imagine a newsworthy context in which the use of "basically" in those statements can be justified. Yet it is even more difficult to imagine a newsreader uttering those statements at all.

    This is symptomatic of the worst sort of peevishness: claiming that a thing in inappropriate in Context X, yet providing only hypothetical examples that are in no way connected with Context X.

    If Adams or anyone else wants to complain about the imprecise use of language in a context that demands precision, that's fine. But let's look at some actual usage.

  37. Bloix said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

    Jonathan Cohen – obviously the word has a real meaning that can be used to convey information, as you've explained. But there are two criticisms of it being leveled: one, by David Adams, who is exasperated by its use as filler, conveying no meaning. Adams makes an intentionally over-the-top claim about its use (this sort of curmudgeonly exaggeration is standard fare in writing of the Punch variety, from which modern newspaper humor is descended), and myl counters with an equally standard rejoinder in which he pretends to take the intentionally preposterous claim literally and proceeds straight-faced to demolish it with scientific evidence. We are on very familiar ground here.

    The second is my criticism, which is different: that basically is often used as a weasel word in order to avoid being straight with someone, perhaps a superior in a hierarchical setting (a boss or a senior colleague), or perhaps an audience – of TV viewers, for example. Myl defends this usage by saying, "if you believe that "yes" or "no" is close enough for the purposes behind the question, but still not quite true, then "basically yes" or "basically no" might be a good choice." Well, it might be. But in my experience it usually isn't. In my experience the person who likes to say "basically" often doesn't know enough to know what my purpose is for asking the question, but knows very well what answer will best serve his or her own needs. Note, by the way, that myl does understand that "basically, yes" means "it's not quite true that the answer is yes," ie the answer is something other than yes.

  38. Ellen said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 6:21 pm

    Bloix, that article you link does not at all say that "frankly" is only used when someone is lying. In fact, it starts off with using it otherwise.

    One thing I've leard about statements with "always" and "never" is that they are rarely true. Things are rarely that absolute.

    As for the lying/bullshit distinction, if you prefer the term bullshit, fine, though I'm not convinced bullshit doesn't qualify as lying.

  39. Nathan Myers said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 6:24 pm

    Bloix: "Liars use words. Therefore, anyone who uses words is lying." Michael Kinsley is not always at the top of his game. Liars are motivated to assert the truth of their statements, and someone doing that a lot should raise your suspicions, but it's the behavior that signals it, not the word. I take Kinsley's assertion as a rhetorical device; in place of the dull "these people are liars:", he offers "look, here's a common device favored by liars, for example:". A small lie, he might say, in service of an important truth, but he took you in.

  40. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

    "Frankly is always used when the speaker is falsely claiming to be telling unpalatable truths, and always in a situation in which the speaker is pretentiously claiming the moral high ground of honesty while in fact being offensive and self-serving."

    Always? Is any usage always employed in the same way, literally without exception? And even if one were, what mere mortal could claim to know about it? Always? Seriously?

    It goes without saying that the claim itself is patently wrong. What may occasionally be true of certain Beltwaymongers is not generally true of me, my acquaintances, or the things I read. When I prefix a statement with the word "frankly," I am alerting my listener to the fact that I will be speaking, well, frankly. This usually occurs in a context where utter frankness may not be expected. My interlocutors seem to understand it in the same way. I may be mistaken (notice the hedge?) but I really don't believe I'm unusual in this respect.

  41. Nathan Myers said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 6:41 pm

    SMJeff: Habitual liars believe everyone else is lying too. It's a much more reliable indicator than other behaviors, including overuse of "frankly". As an indicator, it needs to be used carefully, though: specific individuals or organizations really are habitual liars, and need to be called out without reflecting on the accuser. The accepted form is "What X said is not true, here's why", allowing the listener to conclude, after repeated corrections, X's nature.

  42. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

    . . . users of "basically" are not usually lying. They are usually shoveling shit, which is a different phenomenon.

    I believe I understand now. I simply inhabit a different universe than Bloix.

    Or — perhaps? — this is an attempt at that curmudgeonly exaggeration we hear so much of these days? If so, I would appreciate some markers. Adams might add a few himself. Statements like the following read like genuine complaint, disingenuously softened by the word "gently":

    I would only gently point out that “rein” and “reign” mean entirely different things, as do “cite” and “sight”, and “there”, “their” and “they’re”.

    If I can't find the exaggeration here, why should I have noticed it elsewhere?

  43. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 7:00 pm

    @NathanM

    Yes, I have noticed as much. It probably goes double for conspiracy nuts. Conspiracies of the grassy knoll variety are "defined by" lies, but the believers in conspiracies can seldom be counted on to provide solid evidence that lies were told. Even when you specifically ask for evidence, rather than finding some, they simply change the argument.

    I work with a 9/11 Conspiracy buff. He actually teaches critical thinking skills to college students. It's shocking, really.

  44. D.O. said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 7:57 pm

    Let me put in 2 cents in the discussion of the meaning of basicality. Unless it is used as a space filler, basically supposedly means an approximate truth. Example, "the work is basically done". Meaning
    1) The work is NOT done. There can be no lying about it unless the work is absolutely and completely done. I don't think Bloix is implying this possibility.
    2) Some, most, greatest part etc. of work is done. What actual amount is done is not clear and may depend on the context, the speaker, the listener, etc. How can it be a definite lie unless no work has been started whatsoever or unless the speaker belives that the level of completeness is sufficiently lower that what the listener would expect? If so, it is an illogical choice of word (not that it has to be logical). Why would I give you a linguistic clue that I am lying?
    3) Alternative qualifications (essentially, mainly, for the most part, nearly, almost, etc.) express larger degree of completeness. If so, it is very good to have the word basically, it allows to express a different degree of certainty.
    4) "Some of the work is done, but I don't want to tell you how much." Well, you can always ask. If the word basically conveys that the speker does not think the listener should know the details it is a useful word.
    Anyways, I do not see how the word basically is bad.
    A propos, what the phrase "this basically isn't true" would mean if basically is not a space filler. That "this" is true, but it does not matter?

  45. Nanani said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 9:08 pm

    @TB

    >Most of my students said "basically" when they meant "generally".

    It's pretty obvious where that one comes from. They are thinking of 基本的に which glosses as "basic" + "in the manner of", and so "basically" seems the proper choice. Indeed, any J-E dictionary will give "basic" for 基本.

    This is a case of correct translation but incorrect usage, because the semantics of "basically" have expanded beyond "having to do with the base" as in fundamentals.

    Basically, it would be better for them to stop translating their thoughts and start thinking in English.

  46. Nathan Myers said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 9:17 pm

    D.O.: Yours looks like a good analysis. I suspect usually it means the speaker doesn't think the listener wants the details. On the last point, I think it means "not true, in aggregate, superficial true fragments notwithstanding". E.g., "Bush was a responsible president who participated in expanding Medicare coverage."

    I had a professor who preferred German to English because, he said, German made it hard to be vague. (His example was that you must say "the cat jumped in the window" or "out the window", but it is hard to say "through the window".) It seemed and seems to me that the fine gradations English allows are an asset, allowing me to say as much as I know and no more. I wonder if English is actually unusual in this regard.

  47. D.O. said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 9:33 pm

    @Nanani: learning English as an adult you inevitably relying more on logic than knowledge compared to native speakers. It often does not end up very well.

    @ Nathan Myers: I like your example! That's a task to disagree with a statement with correct factual part, but (arguably) incorrect opinion part!

  48. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 10:01 pm

    Nathan Myers: What is hard about die Katze ist durch das Fenster gesprungen?

  49. Lazar said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 10:05 pm

    "Basically", like other words, can get annoying to me when people overuse it. For example, in high school, our headmaster would constantly use "basically" as a hedge during his addresses to us, to the point where it became a joke among the students. You might compare it to Joe Biden's overuse of the word "literally" in some of his campaign speeches.

    A similar thing is the progressive uses of "like" – I count myself a friend of these usages and employ them frequently, but there have been times in high school and college when I've witnessed people talking about some work of literature with the teacher or professor, and just constantly blurting out "like" as a hedge or verbal tick, to the point that I found it cringe-inducing.

  50. Bloix said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 11:15 pm

    Ellen & SpellMeJeff, the distinction between lying and bullshit is Harry Frankfurt's, not mine. Lots of people find his analysis useful and amusing.

    And SMJ, of course the "gently" is curmudgeonly. This is the tone of a man who is doing his level best to keep his exasperation from spilling over into hysteria. He's doing a John Cleese imitation. This doesn't mean that he doesn't mean what he's saying. Of course he means it. But he's saying it in a "funny" way – that is, in a way that has been considered humorous for several centuries now. Probably there were Romans who wrote like this.

    D.O. – why would someone give a cue that he's lying? Have you ever listened to a lawyer? A politician? A student? People hedge their lies because they fear being caught out. If they hedge, they hope to avoid being accused of having lied. In my hypothetical, suppose Jack was supposed to have finished his section last night but didn't do it. The person who now says that Jack's work is "basically done" is trying to protect himself or Jack or both. The person doesn't want to flat–out lie to the boss, but he does want the boss to go away without a clear understanding of the truth.

    Lazar, yes, the use of "literally" as an intensifier is extraordinarily annoying because it's almost always used when the literal meaning would demand "figuratively." In order to understand what's being said, you have to ignore the meaning of what's being said.

  51. Tim Leonard said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 11:28 pm

    If "basically" is a flag saying that an assertion is depending on a locally valid simplification that may not be valid in other circumstances, then a listener may try to figure out what that simplification is in order to independently judge its validity, or to see how broad a context the assertion is valid in. If it turns out that the "basically" was just filler and wasn't actually flagging such a simplification, then the listener may be annoyed at the speaker for the unnecessary interpretation costs (distraction, processing time, etc.). If it happens frequently, the listener may recognize that the speaker's use of "basically" is annoying, and may then rationalize the annoyance without really understanding its cause. I suspect that's what's happening here.

  52. D.O. said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 12:00 am

    Bloix, I think we disagree somewhat on what a lie is. Unless there is a genuine intent to mislead another person, it is not a lie. Deliberately simplistic example: you meet an acquaintance and ask how's life, the reply is "I am fine". If he thinks that he really is quite bad, it is still not a lie, conversation etiquette allows meaningless "i am fine". So, the proper undestanding will be "he might be OK or is just stonewalling". Now,

    In my hypothetical, suppose Jack was supposed to have finished his section last night but didn't do it. The person who now says that Jack's work is "basically done" is trying to protect himself or Jack or both. The person doesn't want to flat–out lie to the boss, but he does want the boss to go away without a clear understanding of the truth.

    1) The boss did get the information that the work is not done. 2) He also got an "excuse", but he can reject it. 3) If clear understanding is needed the boss can ask.
    I understand that you might be annoyed by people trying to shield important information from you. Nothing wrong with that, but it is strange to blame a linguistic device, which you know conveys this intent.
    Another matter whethter people do actually use "basically" for this purpose. I defer on this to more knowlegeable people.

  53. Ellen said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 12:12 am

    Driving around today, I thought of two instances of driving where, if I were describing them, I'd use "basically". Here, basically means the distinction between my description and the full truth isn't important for the current context, but might be in some other context. For example, "the intersection is basically a cloverleaf". Reality: It's not a full cloverleaf, but mostly one, and the part of the intersection I'm referring to is a cloverleaf. No bullshitting involved. Rather, it's keeping things simple, but acknowledging there's more complexity, not relevant at the moment, which I'm not getting into.

  54. Nathan Myers said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 12:35 am

    Ellen: In that case (as, I would assert, in most real cases) you're doing the listener a favor. But what's the other instance?

  55. Nathan Myers said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 12:39 am

    Coby: I've never had any reason to suspect this professor was right about any topic outside his field. Still, the question remains: is English uniquely suited for expressing fine gradations of vagueness? It seems to have adaptations for being vague about how vague one has chosen to be.

  56. TB said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 12:46 am

    Nanani, aha! I guess I've made that mistake myself in the opposite direction, because I've never used 基本的 that way myself (and if I've heard or read it used that way I didn't get it.) I've always used it to mean "fundamental/ly" or indeed "basic/ally". How funny. So can you say 「日本人は基本的に納豆が好き」?

  57. Emma said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 1:46 am

    By the way, the 'high rising terminal', as heard in Australia, is a marker of specific class/education/gender/age patterns, like it is everywhere else. It is tedious when Stephen Fry carries on about it, or anyone else. Is there some relation between geographical distance of English-speaking community and perceptions of linguistic pollution or something?

  58. Nathan Myers said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 2:50 am

    I'm going to take issue with myl's "the discussion in MWDEU is a sensible one"

    It defends the usage as basically harmless, without shedding any light on where it is actually called for, or what meaning might be taken from it where it appears. It offers none of the insights elucidated above. A remark that it indicates the statement covered is not to be taken as the complete story would enormously enlarge the value of the discussion.

    I don't think, by the way, that its putative use for prevarication deserves coverage there. Since any word may be used to prevaricate, every entry would need to note the possibility, e.g. "true: adj. 1. false".

  59. Cochin Blogger said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 2:54 am

    This is not about "basically," but "based on." Many academic papers have sentences like this: Based on the data, we concluded that …

    Is this acceptable? The opinions I have seen are split down the middle. Some say it is a dangler and change it to "on the basis of." Another school of thought

    Personally, it annoys me when I see it in writing, almost as much as "basically" in speech.

    Cochin Blogger

  60. Cochin Blogger said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 2:55 am

    Sorry, premature click:

    … Another school of thought is that it is just an absolute construction, and hence perfectly acceptable.

  61. Faldone said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 7:16 am

    You: Has Jack finished his part of the project? A colleague: Yes.

    You: Has Jack finished his part of the project? A colleague: Basically, yes.

    Here's a scenario where "Basically, yes" might the correct answer with no implications that Jack necessarily has any more work to do:

    Jack has designed and written the software, run it through alpha testing, and written the user's manual. He has passed the user's manual off to the librarian/proofreader/copy-editor. He may be called upon to clear up some errors of one sort or another in the manual that can't be corrected without technical knowledge of the subject not available to the l/p/c but perhaps not. He may be completely done. Or, he may not have finished the writing of the manual and only has a rough draft, but the software itself has been passed on to the next person in the design chain and Jack is on his next design project and will finish the manual when he manages to squeeze in the time. Either way, Jack is basically done.

  62. Faldone said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 7:25 am

    That blog post graph isn't exactly laid out in a way to make the weekly frequency obvious. they could have picked something a little closer to a multiple of seven for the x-axis tics.

    [(myl) I don't think that looking for weekly rhythms is very high on the agenda for the folks at blogpulse.com.

    If they offered the raw numbers, I'd re-graph it, but they don't.]

  63. Gordon Campbell said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 9:11 am

    My favorite phrase for expressing nunaces of meaning that a bald yes or no can't convey: "not as such". It's useful for all manner of situations. For example: Q. Did you remember to get the milk?/ do your tax return?/ pick the children up from school? A. Not as such

  64. Stephen Jones said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 10:12 am

    Whenever I hear "basically" I automatically think, what am I not being told?

    I suspect you work in software or deal with India, though in the latter case 'basically' is normally implied in any affirmative statement :)

    As has been pointed out this is one use of 'basically', but what you are doing is projecting your frustration at the behaviour on to the word.

  65. Stephen Jones said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 10:20 am

    A propos, what the phrase "this basically isn't true" would mean if basically is not a space filler. That "this" is true, but it does not matter?

    That it is false in the core aspects, even if true in the peripheral.

  66. Richard Hershberger said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 10:41 am

    "What the inquirer is interested in is whether the part of the project is finished, complete, d-o-n-e done, moved off of Jack's desk and on to the person who needs it. The inquirer is not asking, is the bulk of the work done, or is the intellectual work done? That's not done. In these contexts, "basically, yes" generally means "no" and it's an intensely irritating way of saying so."

    I am having a flashback to the worst boss I ever had. He had a knack for asking questions in a form to take "yes" or "no" answers, and refusing to listen to anything else. The problem was that frequently a simple "yes" or "no" was counter-productive. The strictly correct answer withheld the information he actually needed, and often was positively misleading. I would have to argue with him over whether or not I was permitted to give a useful answer. The day I left that job was one of my happiest.

  67. Mark Liberman said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 10:48 am

    It's interesting to see peevishness overwhelming common sense in the remarks of some commenters. To bring a bit of empiricism and rationality back into the discussion, it might help to look at some concrete examples where basically clearly adds useful content, and compare some others where it's a (mostly or entirely superfluous) verbal tic.

    For an example of the first kind, read the context around this quote from Popular Science in 1986:

    Airplanes used to be made basically stable. New-generation fighter planes, on the other hand, are designed to be basically unstable.

    It's striking that after all of the energetic peeving about basically, that no specific examples of the second kind have been brought forward, not by David Adams and not by our more peevish commenters. So here's one, taken from some congressional testimony:

    But basically, clearly, as indicated in our terminology, if you are basically not one of those very well groupings basically in the country, you're basically white Anglo.

    This is clearly someone who has started using basically as a filled pause, in place of good old-fashioned "uh". We get that there are some complexities of racial classification that resist simple statement, but a basically density coefficient of 14.8% (4 in 27 words) is a bit high. No doubt that's the kind of thing that started Mr. Adams off on his screed — but in fact, I think it's rather rare, even in legislative sessions.

  68. Graeme said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 1:32 am

    'Do you know what?' as a handshake, or in 'Hark'e, dost thou know what I was doing?' have some work to do. Both are invitations or questions. (I'm not sure how you could eliminate the phrase from the 17th example. Perhaps 'Hark, what was I doing?' but that implies the answer 'Yes'.)

    The use of 'do you know what' as poly-filler is in a different order. Eg, said with the merest of pauses: 'I went to Vladivostok and, you know what, it was bloody cold.' Or, 'I went to Woolies and, do you know what, it was closed.' Where would you put the question mark? At best it gives a little emphasis or effect.

  69. “Attacks” on the language are greatly misunderstood « Sentence first said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 7:58 am

    […] by PartiallyClips, with thanks to Language Log and its readers for bringing it to my attention (sometimes I go a few weeks without visiting PartiallyClips; I have no […]

  70. Maria said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 10:21 am

    If I might add, filler words do change as fashions come and go, and any new 'plague' has that exasperating effect – not because there is a particular intention behind an instance of misuse of an otherwise legitimate word, but because there usually IS no intention whatsoever. No meaning behind the word used, because the speaker follows instinctually the latest craze and does not make the effort to find accurate wording.
    With all that wonderful richness of human language at everyone's free disposal, filler words or all-too-popular catch phrases in someone's speech are an indication to me that the speaker does not respect his or her own thoughts, nor my effort to participate in the exchange.
    That said, people who I know are true masters of their speech might use ‘basically,’ ‘essentially,’ and ‘like’ – and ‘quality time,’ and ‘closure,’ and ‘tough love’ and what not – but it is being able to avoid them when the situation calls for it that matters. Obscene language creates added dramatic effect, too, when needed, but obliterates it when used excessively. It takes building a robust stylistic repertoire, though, to be versatile. But life would be so boring without filler words.
    David Adams seems to be complaining less about language than about people not caring how easily they join a crowd and give up their right to be individual and precise in expressing their thoughts and feelings. We get peeved by what we feel is behind words – perceived evasiveness, as with ‘basically,’ or total blankness, as with Adams’ examples.
    Sarcasm is an easy genre, especially when someone’s alleged stupidity or lack of variety is the target. On that point, that double ‘willy-nilly’ business – much like the sustained, unswerving scorn – invalidates the whole argument.

  71. Janice Huth Byer said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

    Ellen is right about "always" being an abused absolute. On The Annoyance Scale, its mindless use ranks up there, over the top, being, frankly, false.

    It's been said the only true totality is that there are no totalities. Basically that means there are no legitimate totalities that aren't concrete. You fixed entities know who you are.

  72. Mark Liberman said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

    In the case of "basically", Mr. Adams is working himself up into a lather over a remarkably small irritant. He claims that "It has become so annoyingly pervasive in the spoken language, you sometimes wonder if we are now incapable of relaying even the most mundane information without employing it", but he gives no evidence at all of this alleged ubiquity.

    I looked for basically in U.S. and British conversational speech transcripts, and found few examples, with even fewer being clearly superfluous. Thinking that things are perhaps different in Ireland, I searched in the transcripts of the activities of the Irish Parliament, and found that the word "basically" was used twice in January of 2009, once in February, and twice in March. As this suggests, the transcripts for a randomly selected day (e.g. here) involve many thousands of pieces of mundane information, relayed without resort to the word basically. So I conclude that Mr. Adams was merely airing a set of empirically groundless prejudices.

    And the arguments in the comments above about whether or not basically is always a sign that someone has something to hide, or is bullshitting, or whatever, seem equally detached from reality. Please, folks, try to provide at least a concrete anecdote in support of your generalizations.

  73. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 4:23 am

    "His penultimate peeve is prosodic (and is thus, by general rule, graced by a missing comma)"

    ah yeah, but sure youse yanks use too many commas an anyway.

  74. Nanani said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 8:42 pm

    @TB:

    I'd put 基本的に at the beginning of the sentence, giving 「基本的に、日本人は納豆が好きです」

    The sense is that this is true at the base, and exceptions exist on top of that fundamental level.

  75. mollymooly said,

    August 17, 2009 @ 9:11 pm

    The OED [additions series 1993] gives the sense as "In weakened, often parenthetical use and as a sentence-adverb: actually, in fact." and adds the comment "Freq. in speech; often condemned as more or less redundant."

    I do think that "basically" is now often "weakened" to the point of being a mere filled pause. There are many such words and phrases. While I do find filled pauses annoying, this is only because I would rather live in a world where everyone was perfectly articulate and always spoke in limpid complete sentences, with no false starts, hesitations, or repetitions. This is my problem and I must learn to deal with it. "Basically" is probably less annoying than "ummm" or 0.6 seconds of silence would be.

    I don't accept Bloix' assertion that "basically" is predominantly used evasively rather than vacuously; but it may sometimes be so. It's true that one of the uses of a filled pause is to stall for time to think of a plausible lie or equivocation, and it's plausible that one resorting to such tactics might prefer a fancy piece of bluster to a simple "umm". But, still, a verbal tic which gives a clue that a speaker is being evasive is better for the wary listener. The blusterer who gives himself away with a "basically" is preferable to the more accomplished one who utters a smooth, easy-to-swallow lie.

  76. Aaron Davies said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 11:02 am

    @Gordon Campbell: "not as such" always reminds me of the Cheese Shop. (that being the case, i use it quite a bit when i'm around people i judge likely to be fellow pythonites.)

  77. Aaron Davies said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 11:03 am

    re peevology in general, singaporeans seem to be inordinately fond of "actually". it's really starting to grate.

  78. Maureen said,

    August 31, 2009 @ 12:52 am

    Re: "Japanese people basically like tea."

    That's an eighties and nineties Americanism, not a Japanese dictionary mistake. It's even better if you add "just". "Trekkies just basically like Star Trek." or "Trekkies basically just like Star Trek."

    This probably led to the expressions where it's being used in place of "The situation is" or "There I was".

    "Basically, I was just walking down the road minding my own business when some car splashed water all over me!"

    "Basically" as "partially" requires a sort of drawing out of the syllables.

    "Weeeeeell, the report's baaaasically done, but I've still got to finish proofreading it and then print it out."

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