Do you have a “banned list”? John Rentoul, Author of The Banned List: A Manifesto Against Jargon and Cliche, joins the conversation to discuss the benefit of avoiding overused phrases. His book discusses the rules to bear in mind when writing or speaking clearly and simply.
Below find an excerpt from his book and tweet us what is on your banned list @thecyclemsnbc using #thecycle
The Banned List actually started as an email,
now lost, that I wrote around 2000 with some
rules for leading articles in The Independent.
They should never begin with ‘So’, I said. Since
then I have realised that this is only the first
of a rising three-part scale. Worse is to start an
article with ‘And so’. Worst of all is ‘And so it
begins.’ Time can be saved by not reading on
if an article starts with any of those. Although
that kind of sweeping judgement can lead one
astray, as it once did Martin Amis, to whom I
shall come in a moment.
Most of my other rules were more specific
to leading articles. (I said we should use formal
language such as ‘leading article’ rather than
‘leader’, ‘newspaper’ rather than ‘paper’ and avoid
contractions such as ‘don’t’ and ‘can’t’; the other
rule that I remember was: ‘We never call for a
debate, because we know what we think.’) The
guidelines also advised against the use of foreign
languages, as did George Orwell, to whom I shall
also come in a moment, or dead ones, which
Orwell did not mention. I think there had been
some debate in the office about the use of the
Latin word pace, in which it turned out that
some people not only did not know what it
means (‘with respect to’ in the sense of ‘contrary
to the opinion of ’) but thought that it is a way
of citing someone in one’s support. Quod erat
It would be a cliché, and wrong, to say that
I was standing on the shoulders of giants in
compiling those guidelines, and this List. I am
not standing on anything; I am stealing. It was
Henry Fowler whom I burgled first. His Modern
English Usage is a fine browsing-ground for
those who care about clear writing, although,
as David Crystal points out in his introduction
to the 2009 reissue of the first edition, Fowler
contradicts himself repeatedly. People who
object that ‘under the circumstances’ ought to
be ‘in the circumstances’ (a good point, now he
mentions it) are dismissed as ‘puerile’. He says
that using the prefix ‘super-’ not in its primary
sense of ‘above’ or ‘transcending’ but meaning
‘of a superior kind’, ‘as in superman, supermarket,
superministry … is so evidently convenient
that it is vain to protest when others indulge in
it’ (a lovely condescension).
But, as Crystal notes, ‘when Fowler encounters
a usage he does not like, his language alters’.
For example, he refuses to tolerate the coming
together of ‘forceful’ and ‘forcible’ — ‘such
writers injure the language’ — and he condemns
the use of ‘phenomenal’ to mean ‘remarkable’ as
having had ‘unreasonable vogue’. He says that
‘believers in sound English may deliver their
attack upon such usages with hope of success’.
How wrong he turned out to be.
Then came George Orwell, whom I admire
mainly because his real name was Blair.
Others admire him because he wrote well and
passionately against sloppy political writing.
Not that his own writing is universally praised.
According to Christopher Hitchens, Martin
Amis ‘declined to go any further into Nineteen
Eighty-Four because the words “ruggedly handsome
features” appear on the first page’. (The
features belong to Big Brother in a poster.)
Amis said: ‘The man can’t write worth a
damn.’ Hitchens tells the story in his memoir,
Hitch-22, and Amis confirmed it to Michael
Ezra, a friend of mine. Amis would ‘never let
friendship take precedence over his first love,
which was and is the English language’, wrote
Hitchens, who admitted that his friend had
once rebuked him for using ‘no mean achievement’
in an article. I have added that to the
Amis later grudgingly admitted that Nineteen
Eighty-Four improved after its unfortunate start,
but Orwell is cited here because he compiled an
early version of the Banned List in his essay,
‘Politics and the English Language’, in 1946.
He identified four categories of verbiage: ‘dying
metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious diction
and meaningless words’.
His examples of dying metaphors were:
Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel
for, toe the line, ride roughshod over,
stand shoulder to shoulder with, play
into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist
to the mill, fishing in troubled waters,
on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel,
swan song, hotbed.
All of them I have added to my list, except
‘fishing in troubled waters’, which is now extinct.
I thought that ‘take up the cudgel for’ was sleeping
with the fishes too, but I found that Jemima
Khan had stepped outside her Oxfordshire
mansion to ‘take up the cudgels for human
rights’, according to my good colleague Ian
Burrell of The Independent in December 2010.
The pluralisation of the original cudgel is one
of those subtle changes that clichés undergo over
decades. The ‘on the’ has dropped off ‘the order
of the day’, and ‘toe the line’ has been rendered
so featureless by over-use that it is now often
written as ‘tow the line’, which is a different
‘Verbal false limbs’ was hardly an elegant
phrase, but you see what Orwell meant when
Characteristic phrases are render inoperative,
militate against, make contact
with, be subjected to, give rise to, give
grounds for, have the effect of, play a
leading part (role) in, make itself felt,
take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve
the purpose of.
I have added them all. They are all still current,
although some are more offensive than others.
(‘Militate against’ is a particular menace because
some people confuse ‘militate’ and ‘mitigate’,
which turns it into a nonsense phrase.)
When he came to ‘pretentious diction’ Orwell
seems to have run out of time to think of really
Words like phenomenon, element,
individual (as noun), objective,
categorical, effective, virtual, basic,
primary, promote, constitute, exhibit,
exploit, utilise, eliminate, liquidate.
Many of them are unattractive and should
be substituted by shorter, more direct words
if possible, but ‘element’, ‘primary’ and ‘exploit’
are perfectly good words of precise meaning.
Others of his examples may have evolved
since 1946. It would be fussy to rule against
the use of individual as a noun now. But most
of them are objectionable only if misused.
‘Promote’ and ‘constitute’ are useful words in
the right places and are pretentious only if used
to mean ‘encourage’ or ‘make up’. So I have not
added these, except ‘utilise’, which has no place
in the English language as long as the ‘tili’ can
Orwell’s examples of meaningless words
— class, totalitarian, science, progressive,
reactionary, bourgeois, equality — also seem
unnecessarily argumentative. What he means is
that they are often used to add value judgements
surreptitiously to statements about which the
reader ought to be allowed to make up his or
her own mind. Again, most of them cannot be
banned altogether, and even ‘progressive’, which
is on my Banned List, is permitted when making
an arithmetical point about tax systems.
Orwell’s essay also set out six flawed rules to
help write good English:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other
figure of speech which you are used to
seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always
cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific
word, or a jargon word if you can think
of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say
anything outright barbarous.
The first and the fifth are all right, but the others
depend on the sixth to make sense of their
ironic absolutism. It may be possible never to use
foreign, scientific or jargon words, but not even
Martin Amis could abide by the first rule all the
time. Criticising Orwell for his ‘never’ and ‘always’
might seem a bit rich — or even, to test rule five,
a case of lese-majesty * — from someone who
has called his own book The Banned List. But it
would have been more use if Orwell had said a bit
more about the reasons for going against his rules
than the avoidance of the ‘outright barbarous’.
Barbarity is not the test. Sometimes long words
are more interesting than short ones. Sometimes
• Lese-majesty is actually an Anglicised phrase; the French is lèse
The Banned List
words that are strictly superfluous improve the
rhythm of a sentence, or make it funny. The
common complaint against sub-editors is that
the first thing they do is take out all the jokes.
It is possible to cut them out, so if the article is
too long they do so. (Although the complaint is
often unfair: if a sub-editor takes out a joke, the
first possibility that ought to be considered is
that it was not funny.)
And where would you stop? It would be
possible to cut out all but the first paragraph
of most news stories, and some media organisations
seem to aspire to this model. William
Shakespeare could have written, ‘boy meets
girl and everyone dies’, but the play would
have lacked a certain ‘I know not what’, as the
French say. Or we could all write nothing at
all and abandon what Erich Fromm called the
struggle against pointlessness. Rule four is an
exaggeration too. Sometimes, if only to vary the
mood, the passive is to be preferred (I cannot
say it, because it is on the List, but if you did
see what I did there, well done).
With those qualifications, then, Orwell’s rules
are all very well, but we are particularly interested
here in his lists of examples. They are one of the
sources on which I have drawn in compiling the
Some of the List was put together from my
chance dislikes that, like that stupid economy,
caused me to sublimate my desire to shout
at the radio or television, or to throw down
a newspaper in disgust. Increasingly, others
nominated their own dislikes for inclusion,
which I accepted or rejected with arbitrary
power. Readers of my blog and other Twitter
users were my best resource. Contrary to
Google’s being ‘white bread of the mind’, in
the loopy phrase of Tara Brabazon, a professor
of media studies at Brighton University,
the power of computers can be harnessed for
mutual self-improvement. Yes, there is a lot
of text-message abbreviation on the internet,
a lot of carelessly-written comment and a lot
of badly-written pretension. But there is also
a lot of good writing, a freshness of expression
The Banned List
and all kinds of new slang, some of which is
highly inventive and ticklish.
The internet can allow people to dumb down,
if that is what they want, but it is also a liberator
for those seeking out quality. My experience is
that people care about language; pedantry is
also popular. The internet is not destroying the
language but giving us new ways of shaming
its most prominent practitioners into using it
Suggestions from people online now make up
most of the List, and their contributions reveal
that there is a core of linguistic crimes that
causes most offence. ‘Going forward’ is possibly
the current top irritant. ‘Around’ to mean about,
as in ‘address issues around gender’, ‘iconic’ and
‘no brainer’ are persistently nominated. Then
there are the vogue phrases of commentary,
especially political commentary, and especially
those borrowed from business jargon, such
‘the elephant in the room’, ‘perfect storm’,
‘parameter’ and ‘pressing all the right buttons’.
This core changes over time – as I have noted,
some clichés go through a cycle like diseases:
outbreak, spread, peak and decline. Sometimes
they become part of the language, as if the
ectoplasm of English has absorbed the infection
and turned it to useful purpose. There has
been a fashion that has lasted for some years,
for example, for ‘verbing’ nouns: access, impact,
foreground and address.
Some readers directed my attention to lists
other than Orwell’s that someone else had
prepared earlier. Matthew Parris and Paul Flynn
made a list called ‘Political Deadspeak’ for a BBC
Radio 4 programme called Not My Words, Mr
Speaker in September 2007. It had ‘dialogue
of the deaf ’, ‘economics of the madhouse’, ‘not
rocket science’, ‘level playing field’, ‘siren voices’
and many more that I have copied and pasted.
Allan Christiansen, an official at Auckland
Council in New Zealand, sent me a list of his translations
of bureaucratic jargon, which included:
Action point: Place where you go for
some action. Pub, nightclub, etc.
Enhancement meeting: Hair appointment,
facial, makeover or any other beauty
treatment that looks great for five
minutes and then reverts to its old self.
Hot desk: Stolen.
Work-flowed: The result of quickly lifting
up your desk at one end. Also known as
a planned-slide, or clear desk policy.
Workstreams: Office flood.
Some of his suggestions are on the list, although
the imaginary Committee ruled that the examples
above were peculiar to large organisations
and have not (yet) seeped into general use.
Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair,
had a short list of journalese words, which his
writers were not allowed to use. It included
opine, pen (as a verb) and inadvisable alternatives
to ‘said’ (chortled, joked, quipped), which
I adopted, as well as injunctions against the use
of funky, glitz and weird, which I did not.
One of the words on Carter’s list was
‘plethora’, which needs no further explanation
but is so much more interesting if it gets it. Like
so many of the worst items on the list it is not
only a cliché but it is usually used incorrectly.
This was best explained by my learned colleague
Do we really need a word that means
a harmful excess of something which,
in due measure, would be beneficial?
Yes, actually, we do; and that is what
‘plethora’ means. If we keep using it
to mean just ‘a lot’, then we will lose
a useful word, which would be a pity.
[The Independent, 28 May 2011.]
Too late now, I suspect. But Guy’s ‘Errors
& Omissions’ column in The Independent (it
used to be called ‘Mea Culpa’, which was not
strictly accurate and not English but I rather
liked it) was one of my best sources for the
Banned List. He not only identified candidates
for inclusion, but drily explained why they are
It was he who identified a new genus of waffle:
‘those terms ending in “of” that amount to little
more than preliminary throat-clearing.’ They
include ‘the level of ’, ‘a sense of ’, ‘a series of ’, ‘the
introduction of ’, ‘a package of ’, ‘a basket of ’, ‘a
raft of ’, ‘a range of ’ and ‘the prospect of ’. As he
said, ‘They can nearly always be struck out.’ [The
Independent, 30 October 2010.] In one sweeping
movement, he added nine items to the list. ‘All
the hallmarks of ’ makes it ten, and Liz Kendall,
the MP for Leicester West and a former adviser
at the Department of Health, added ‘a suite of ’
policies, a phrase that she said was ‘beloved’ there.
Thus my list grew. Sometimes it felt as if it
had grown too long. Some of my correspondents
complained that it would be easier to publish a
list of words and phrases that are permitted, or
that I was trying to reduce all communication
to grunts and clicks. This is untrue: English is
such a rich language that, no matter how long
the Banned List becomes, the scope for creativity
and originality with what is left remains infinite.
It would be hard, and beside the point, however,
to list all the figures of speech ‘which you are
used to seeing in print’.
The List is not in the business of simply
compiling over-used metaphors, archaisms
and jargon; it is a selection of the most irritating.
Common or garden clichés are therefore
permitted. Their main interest — and it is not
that interesting — lies in their origins. The earliest
use of ‘common or garden’ identified by the
Oxford English Dictionary was in a 1657 botany
book: ‘The Common or Garden Nightshade is
Provided that they keep themselves to themselves,
that they are not trying to annoy, plain
clichés may be waved through on a temporary
idiom visa. The scales falling from the eyes (that
was Paul, or Saul, on the road to Damascus:
‘there fell from his eyes as it had been scales’, Acts
9:18; modern translations have the less poetic
but more informative ‘something like fish scales
fell from his eyes’); the biting of bullets (a once
graphic reference to coping with pain during
surgery without anaesthetic); the light at the end
of the tunnel; the end game: trying to list them
all starts off fun but becomes as interesting as
collecting bus numbers.
Indeed, you could try to classify hackneyed
words and phrases; to devise a taxonomy. There
are metaphors, such as those above. There are
subcategories of metaphor, such as sporting
ones (playing catch-up; sticky wicket; open
goal), which are bearable, because at least most
people know roughly what they mean; and
sub-subcategories, such as American sporting
metaphors (step up to the plate; ballpark; Hail
Mary pass), which are not. Nautical metaphors
(on someone’s watch, trimming sails, full steam
ahead) are common in English, even though few
people have direct knowledge of the originals.
There are similes, not so common (like a rolling
stone; compare thee to a summer’s day; as
if butter would not melt in her mouth). There
are old-fashioned words (the batting of eyelids;
the ploughing of furrows; the linchpin) that
survived in a niche because they fitted, or because
they provided variety, but which are now part
of the sameness. There are new and slang words
to which the same applies.
There are specialist words, and foreign words.
Some of these have been assimilated and have
been rendered harmless, such as cliché, French
for stencil, which provides English with a word
that it did not have and for which there is a need.
None of these offend. Soubriquet, on the other
hand, which the dictionary tells me is usually
spelt sobriquet, originally meant a ‘chuck under
the chin’, but it does not matter because we have
had enough of it: it goes on the List.
The List, therefore, is not merely for clichés;
it is reserved for those that grate, or that are
wrong; it is for jargon so foolish that it impedes
communication; and for stock devices that
betray an insulting lack of thought.