The long and the short of it

Q: Your post on “I mean” and other empty expressions made me wonder why people do things “on a daily basis” or “on a regular basis”?  Can’t they simply do them daily or regularly? Ever been bugged by this?

A: Yes, we’re sometimes annoyed by this kind of thing too. But usually we simply  don’t hear (or see) the extra words because they whiz right by. Words with no content tend to do that.

The adverbial phrases “on a daily basis” and “on a regular basis” can easily be replaced, as you suggest, by “daily” and “regularly.”

The chief attraction of these phrases is that they’re longer. To some people, longer is better.

A couple of extra words may sometimes improve the rhythm of a sentence, but they often just clutter writing with verbal litter.

This reminds us of a comment by Mark Twain that we used in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths. Here’s how we began our section on the roots of the word “cop”:

“Like many writers of his day, Mark Twain was often paid by the word. At seven cents a pop, he’d get forty-nine cents for this sentence: ‘I met a policeman in the metropolis.’ Except that he wouldn’t have written it like that, or so he once joked.

“ ‘I never write “metropolis” for seven cents, because I can get the same money for “city.” I never write “policeman,” because I can get the same price for “cop.” ’ ”

We like short words too. They’re punchy, direct, and down-to-earth. But many people feel the need to pump up their writing with longer words and phrases.

As for “cop,” if you’d like to read more and don’t want to pop for Origins of the Specious, we had a brief blog item in 2006 on the word’s history.

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