SOS: save our speech

The habitual misuse of adverbs is bastardising the spoken word, says Finbarr Bermingham

Sentence fillers, like their sandwich dwelling peers, have taken on a new complexity in recent years. Previously content to "um" and "like" their way through conversations, offenders have staged a simultaneous, mass upgrade and acquired new-fangled, polysyllabic ways of punctuating their ramblings, to breathtakingly erroneous effect. You see, beyond risking the mild annoyance of your co-conversationalist, dropping "like" five times in a sentence is a fairly safe option: there's little room for error. Step it up a notch, though, and there's every chance you'll fall flat on your face. It's led to an epidemic of linguistic barbarism, which you, as students, should be at pains to arrest and police. Like picking your nose and smoking, you'll find it's much easier to quit while you're young.

The biggest victim in the crisis of syntax has been the English language itself. Words like "literally" - for centuries a cornerstone of non-fictional dialogue - have been hijacked and rendered unusable for the discerning speaker. Before his death, the late Reverend Jerry Falwell provided us with a most heinous usage of the word, and one which should act as a deterrent to you all. "If you and I don't speak up now," the daft, fire and brimstone preacher told his religious-right brethren, "this homosexual steamroller will literally crush all decent men, women and children who get in its way... and our nation will pay a terrible price!" Steamrollered? A terrible price indeed. But of course, Falwell wasn't really speaking literally, he was trying to be figurative (in his inimitably horrible way). Similarly, the next time someone tells you they've been to a comedy show and "literally wet themselves", cast a beady eye downward and survey the evidence, before helpfully pulling them up on their mistake.

"Literally" is not the only offender. The moment you hear someone opening an explanation with the word "basically", brace yourself for a ten minute postulation that's anything but basic. When someone begins responding to your question with: "Well, obviously...", stop them immediately! If it was obvious, you wouldn't have asked, would you? And you can bet your life that someone who prefixes a sentence with "to be honest" is rarely on the verge of baring their soul. While linguists recognise the importance of fillers in helping conversations continue smoothly, in order to keep our language clean, they should be used correctly, or substituted for something small and meaningless - why not try "ah"?

It's a slippery slope, as you'll find when you enter the workplace, where whole paragraphs are composed of jargonistic filler. The lexicon of the City is awash with "going forwards'", "client-facings", "open door policies", "blue-sky thinkings", "timeframes", "skillsets" and the worst culprit of all, "work-life balances". Imagine, if you will, the unfettered desperation of a vocabulary fusing corporate speak with modern fillers? It's your duty to prevent this. Your language needs you.

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