The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “basis” loaded?

Q: I had hoped your “ongoing” article would opine about “on an ongoing basis” and similar constructions. I see phrases like “on a going-forward basis” and “on an expedited basis” more and more (perhaps because I read a lot of documents written by government lawyers). They set my teeth on edge and seem at best wordy.

A: Yes, many of these “basis” expressions could be replaced by simpler modifiers.

Instead of “on a going-forward basis” (which to our surprise produced 90,000 hits on Google), how about “in the future” or “from now on”? And instead of “on an expedited basis” (235,000 hits), why not “quickly”?

We’re not surprised that you find “on an ongoing basis” (a whopping 6.3 million hits!) annoying. It often serves no purpose (other than to give one’s writing an air of stuffiness) and could be deleted.

Here are some recent examples from news stories. Just imagine them without the underlined phrase:

“It is the most common anti-clotting drug, and most people with heart disease are advised to take it daily in low dose on an ongoing basis” (from the New York Times).

“The Red Cross hopes to have 15 to 20 Canadians cycling through West Africa on an ongoing basis for the next six to 12 months” (from Canada’s CTV News).

“Mobile platforms have changed not only how people shop, but have also enabled them to look for deals and bargains on an ongoing basis and make the most of them on the spot” (from Retail Times online).

To be fair, we did find some examples in which “on an ongoing basis” served a legitimate purpose. But even then, it could have been replaced with something simpler. For example:

“It’s no longer about selling them a game once every year. It’s about being able to offer value on an ongoing basis” (quoted in the Washington Post). That one could be replaced with “every day.”

These “basis” constructions also serve a useful purpose when a writer or speaker wants to emphasize an underlying condition or state of affairs: “She was hired on a trial basis” or “They’re on a first-name basis.”

And the constructions are handy when used to emphasize a fixed pattern or system for doing something: “Our employees are paid on a monthly basis.” Though in normal usage, “I’m paid monthly” seems more felicitous to us.

The Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for the phrase “ongoing basis,” but in searches of various databases we found examples dating from the late 1950s.

The earliest was from the September 1959 issue of the journal Biometrics: “providing meaningful data to the clinician on an ongoing basis as opposed to providing him with results based on mere endpoint observations.”

The expression cropped up occasionally during the 1960s, then with increased frequency throughout the 1970s and beyond. It has proved especially popular among scientific, corporate, and governmental writers.

For instance, it appeared no less than six times in a 119-page instructor’s guide, “Professional Career Systems in Housing Management,” published in 1979 for a workshop sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In each of the passages (you’ll have to trust us on this, since we’re in no mood to quote them), the phrase could have been replaced by the adverb “regularly.”

The OED has no discussion on the use of “basis” with temporal adjectives. (The last new citation in the “basis” entry is from 1958.)

But throughout the dictionary, in citations for other words, there are scores of examples in which “basis” is modified by “daily,” “hourly,” “weekly,” “monthly,” “yearly,” “annual,” “regular,” “irregular,” and “continuing.” So “ongoing basis” was probably inevitable.

A final word about “basis,” which English adopted directly from the Latin noun basis (foundation). The earlier Greek noun basis (something to step or stand on) is derived from the verb bainein (to step or go), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

When “basis” entered English in the 1500s it meant the same as “base,” a word that had come into the language through Old French in the 1200s. And for a time, “base” and “basis” had the same meaning—the foundation, pedestal, support, or foot of some material thing.

But around 1600, according to OED citations, “basis” acquired several figurative or transferred meanings in respect to immaterial things: a principal ingredient or constituent, an underlying foundation, a principle, or a fact.

The result is that today “basis” retains only its newer meanings, and it’s no longer used in its original, material sense.

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