English English language Expression Language Linguistics Usage Writing

Sticking in a knife with a smile

Q: I have recently heard two instances of someone prefacing a criticism by saying, “I am telling you this lovingly.” It sounds to me like sticking in a knife with a smile. It’s similar to prefacing a remark with “clearly,” an indication that things may not be all that clear. Any thoughts about this?

A: We haven’t yet noticed “lovingly” used to criticise with a smile. But like you, we’re bugged by deceptive preludes to faultfinding.

As you know, these introductory remarks are often followed by the word “but” and the critical statement. Some of the more common ones: “I don’t want to criticize, but …,” “I hate to be the one to tell you, but …,” “Don’t take this the wrong way, but …,” and “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but ….”

These “contrary-to-fact phrases” have been called “false fronts,” “wishwashers,” “but heads,” and “lying qualifiers,” according to the lexicographer Erin McKean, as we noted in a 2012 post.

McKean says the object of these opening remarks is “to preemptively deny a charge that has yet to be made, with a kind of ‘best offense is a good defense’ strategy” (Boston Globe, Nov. 14, 2010).

“This technique,” she notes, “has a distinguished relative in classical rhetoric: the device of procatalepsis, in which the speaker brings up and immediately refutes the anticipated objections of his or her hearer.”

Once you start looking for these deceptive introductions, McKean says, “you see them everywhere, and you see how much they reveal about the speaker. When someone says ‘It’s not about the money, but …,’ it’s almost always about the money. If you hear ‘It really doesn’t matter to me, but …,’ odds are it does matter, and quite a bit.”

“ ‘No offense, but …’ and ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but …’ are both warning flags, guaranteed to precede statements that are offensive, insulting, or both,” she adds. “ ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but …’ invariably signals the advent of breathtaking, blatant, write-in-to-Miss-Manners-style rudeness. (And when someone starts out by saying ‘Promise me you won’t get mad, but …’ you might as well go ahead and start getting mad.)”

McKean doesn’t mention the use of “clearly” at the beginning of a sentence, but she discusses a few similar sentence adverbs: “Someone who begins a sentence with ‘Confidentially’ is nearly always betraying a confidence; someone who starts out ‘Frankly,’ or ‘Honestly,’ ‘To be (completely) honest with you,’ or ‘Let me give it to you straight’ brings to mind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quip: ‘The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.’ ”

We should also mention a 2013 post of ours about “Just sayin’,” an expression that follows a critical comment: “ ‘You might look for a new hair stylist. Just sayin’.”

Why do people use deceptive phrases in criticizing others? McKean suggests that “our real need for these phrases may be rooted in something closer to self-delusion. We’d all like to believe we aren’t being spiteful, nosy or less than forthcoming. To proclaim our innocence in this way is to assert that we are, indeed, innocent.”

However, we think that many of us—including the two of us—use these sneaky expressions simply because we don’t feel comfortable criticizing others, even when criticism may be warranted. Unfortunately, a sneaky criticism often stings more than one that’s plainspoken.

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