Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mantra overload (1)

Another mannerism that interferes with clear writing is the frequent use of mantras (fad words that have endured). There is nothing wrong with deliberately using an occasional mantra for style or effect. However, many people can’t seem to write two paragraphs in a row (or speak for 30 seconds) without using at least one mantra.

Often you’ll notice someone using two mantras in a single sentence. Sometimes even three – although that’s rare.

Here’s an example of three mantras in one sentence. It is from NWAnews.com, June 3, 2007:

“ ‘At the end of the day, I believe fully the president is doing the right thing, and I think all we need is some attacks on American soil like we had on [Sept. 11, 2001], and the naysayers will come around very quickly to appreciate not only the commitment for President Bush, but the sacrifice that has been made by men and women to protect this country,’ [Dennis] Milligan said.” (Boldface added.)

Mr. Milligan (shown in photo above) is chairman of the Republican Party in Arkansas. The remark is widely considered deranged.

I chose this example not only because it contained three mantras in a single sentence, but also because those three specific mantras represented all three categories of mantras:

Rhetorical clutter (a phrase that adds no meaning to a sentence)

Vague place-holder (a phrase used by lazy speakers and writers)

Propaganda phrase (a loaded phrase with a hidden agenda)

At the end of the day is rhetorical clutter. It conveys no more meaning than does the phrase well, basically, and it may confuse the reader who wonders why it’s there. And, like most mantras in this category, it irritates many readers. At the end of the day was recently voted the #1 most irritating phrase in the English language.

Do(ing) the right thing is a vague place-holder. In the context of Mr. Milligan’s remark, the adjective right could mean ethical, moral, honorable, brave, traditional, customary, stylish, fashionable, polite, practical, cunning, Machiavellian, or more.

Like Homeland Security and other phrases that U.S. Government employees began popularizing after 9-11, soil as used in this context is a borrowing from Nazi Germany. The National Socialists popularized the traditional German phrase Blut und Boden (blood and soil) into a mantra and used the mantra as nationalist and racist propaganda.

The Takeaway: If you use a lot of mantras, you may confuse and irritate your readers and hearers. You may even appear to be lazy and sneaky. Need I say more?

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