So, um, I thought I’d write about ‘basically’.
Basically, this is a useful spoken word that some say is a meaningless cliché. Others whinge that at the end of the day it’s an annoying, irritating, irksome cliché and, all in all, a waste of sentence space.
There is, of course, a whole long list of words and phrases that serve the same purpose as ‘basically’ in contemporary discourse, and that, um, otherwise rational people take exception to. Here’s a space for you to fill with your best bête noirs and pet hates.
Basically, you’ll find a less elegant the space for comments if you scroll down a bit. At the base of this column. After the footnotes.
While you are at it you perhaps you’d like to blue-pencil all the redundant words in the opening paragraphs. Why not? Basically, your personal opinion is probably perfectly valid.
So. Um. OK.
‘Well’, ‘to be honest’, ‘at the end of the day’, ‘if you know what I mean’, ‘I mean’, ‘seriously’, ‘it is what it is’.
Basically, that there is a sentence that is, basically, all filler and no sandwich. A superabundance of terms that serve the functions for which these terms are castigated: over-familiar pause filling and empty-headed hesitation. Ah, the spoken pause. Pause. What’s wrong with a spot silence while you are thinking what to say next?
At bottom, other than in Pinteresque dialogue, a Pause. is likely be announced or filled by ah, er, erm, um, and so on, at the very least. Not particularly graceful additions to speech, and, at times, a more than annoying little tic. But these non-lexical sounds demonstrate that the speaker is actively engaged with the topic. And, let’s be honest, if you are being in some way vocal, it does make it harder for someone else to nick into a conversational gap and take over the topic you are addressing. Words provide an altogether more effective space-filling strategy than noises. Once you are mid-cliché you are virtually invulnerable; any interruption would be ill-mannered heckling at best. So…
What’s wrong with clichés anyway? They are highly evolved words and phrases. A cliché has achieved clichédom because it serves a useful purpose and for that reason it has becomes a shade overused. Basically, even though constant cliché abuse can be a little tiresome, ‘basically’ is a word no less useful now than it always has been. And ‘basically’ is the word in focus here, at this time and going forward. So far.
The space-filling cliché users are not at fault. Forgive them for they do know what they do (even if they are not always aware of it): they are choosing their best words for the job in hand. If you, as critical listener, don’t like a sentence-filling word or phrase then, perhaps, it is because you have stopped listening to what is being said and/or are overlooking the nuanced purposes of a good word; it may be that your responses have become clichéd, shriveled and rote.
Essentially, the definition of ‘basically’ is just that. Essentially. It is a word that fundamentally enhances a sentence. More than merely ‘essentially’ it can be placed in a sentence to signal that what is being said in that sentence is, or will be, at heart, a satisfactory summary.
Also, however shallow its use may be considered, it is contextually finer and dandier than ah, er, erm, um. ‘Basically’: a perfectly good word in a perfectly good place.
So why is this word so loathed, derided, hunted and hounded? Ask Google for a list of the most annoying words and ‘basically’ is way up there. But why? Can we blame the politicians?
True, it is all too easy to disbelieve politicians who begin sentences with ‘basically’. In that context ‘basically’ may be seen as a bit of a signpost. Is that sufficient reason to have ‘basically’ as a pet hate? To be honest, disbelieving politicians whenever their lips move is an everyday activity for many and, without the need to single out particular words they may marshal for their manipulations, it saves time.
In support of a 2004 initiative to rid the world of clichés, a ‘spokesman’ quoted on the Plain English Campaign website said, ‘overused phrases were a barrier to communication’. ‘Basically’ was absurdly nominated for some kind of extinction.
Almost a decade after that failed/doomed attempt, in 2013, a London academy school actually put up notices banning pupils from starting sentences with ‘basically’. At least that was the story that got them in the papers, yeah. That’s what modern schooling is for: to keep linguistic prejudice alive.
Even now ‘basically’ regularly pops up on the BBC 5 Live radio grammar phone-in that I am involved in. Otherwise I wouldn’t be bothered to write about it here.
“Do you know what word really annoys me?”
Um. Let me think before I say anything. Err. It ain’t ‘basically’, is it?
Inspired by the Plain English Campaign let’s banish words to the outer darkness. We can replace ‘basically’ with nothing. Literally.
A clever speaker will pause mid
word thereby leaving the auditor hanging on in antici
pation. Basically, it would be rude to interrupt. This is a proven strategy: employ a silent space-filler and that will give you ex
tra thinking time. Basically, dear spokesperson, no more umming and erring: Pause in the middle of a word, look thoughtful, and it is very unlikely that you will be inter
rupted. Problem solved. Except for two things. 1. it’s bloody annoying and 2. you still have to get the sentence started. Try pausing in the middle of ‘basically’ and see what happens.
A more practical solution for ‘basically’-haters, if you really can’t get over your anathema, is to opt for selective deafness. Um, it’s not going away. Learn to live with it.
“Another word that annoys me so is ‘so’.”
Who says so? Some so-and- so says so (not me) when addressing the contemporary habit of commencing questions and answers with the word ‘so’. So now appears typically at the beginnings of both questions and answers, irregardless of part of speech requirements.
So, you take a pinch of adverb and it mix with a little conjunction, just so: now you’re ready to speak. Like ‘basically’ (as opposed to like, basically, yeah) ‘so’ does allow a moment for thought whilst engaging with the sentence that is being planned to follow.
“So, how can you possibly defend the use of ‘so’ at the beginning of sentences when it makes no grammatical sense? ”
So, a crack team of imaginary linguists spent a good while looking at this question and concluded that so long as ‘so’ is not an impediment to communication it acts – assuming that you really do need a grammatical excuse or rule for every sound you utter – as spoken punctuation, like a pilcrow announcing a new paragraph.
“So, that’s it? Your answer to a serious question is to employ imaginary linguists and obscure punctuation marks to stitch grammar up, is it?”
Sew, a needle pulling thread.
“And so you have now actually resorted to talking nonsense.”
Well, no. The phrase itself does make sense – in the right context. And that’s the point. ‘So’ is used in the context of spoken English. The ‘sew’ pun doesn’t really work unless it’s in spoken English. Also, here’s consequent thought, when we speak; contextual, um, our sentences get interrupted with with fresh thoughts – terrific thoughts, terrific – and littered with idioms and allusions – we have the best allusions by the way, really great, ooh look! a kitten – so ‘so’ is a useful coping mechanism. So much better in my opinion than beginning your sentence, question or answer, with erm, ah or um.
“But It sounds so American. That’s not what the English language is for.”
And you just started a sentence with a conjunction and finished with a preposition, so don’t start. Basically, everyone is an expert in their own form of English, yeah. So you naturally speak in the manner and idiom that works for you and if everyone can understand you, well that’s all well and good. But if all you can say is in criticism of other people’s ways of speaking don’t be surprised if no one is listening. And, um, if you can’t get past ‘basically’ or ‘so’ for the sound of tutting you are missing out.
 After Nobel prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter (1930 to 2008)
 That’s a genuine Pinter Pause. – from Act Three of The Caretaker, 1960
 How quaintly gender-specific we were in 2004.
 Yes, I know. And if you don’t, look it up in a dictionary.
 If so annoys you then perhaps you’ll be distracted by a split infinitive.
 Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, The Sound of Music: Do Re Mi, 1965