Thursday, 18 August 2011

A-puffin' and a-paddin'

The word padding may be used to refer to any words or phrases that puff up a sentence without adding anything of significance to its content. Someone has referred to such entities as “polystyrene”.Here are a few frequently occurring examples of verbal polystyrene: 
  • as to in “We weren’t sure as to how …” instead of simply “We weren’t sure how …”
  • so as in “I went there so as to” instead of “I went there to …”
  • being in “The reason being is that …” instead of “The reason is that” (and, incidentally, not “The reason is because …” – see post “Reasonable cause”, 28 April 2011)
  • such time as in “I’ll stay here until such time as she comes to fetch me” instead of “I’ll stay here until she comes …”
  • present in “at the present moment” instead of “at the moment” (one could also write “at present” instead of “at the moment”)
  • alternatively in “XYZ or, alternatively, ABC” instead of simply “XYZ or ABC”
  • like in “The fridge they tried to like persuade us to buy costs like three thousand rand! Thirty years ago you could like buy a much better fridge for less than like two hundred bucks!” instead of … etc. etc. (Simply omit all the “likes”!)
Why do people use superfluous words like these? Possibly:
  • because of a misconception that a padded phrase may sound more sophisticated
  • for effect or reinforcement, e.g. in actual fact instead of in fact
  • to “soften” a statement, e.g. "I basically just want to make three copies" when you’re trying to jump the queue at the photocopier – it sounds more apologetic and less presumptuous than without the polystyrene!
Is padding always undesirable? 

In most formal texts, e.g. formal letters, student assignments and public notices, yes. Padding does little more than “inflate” the text and (sometimes) perpetuate archaic, pseudo-sophisticated phrases. Contrary to what compulsive padders seem to believe, padding does not place the padder a cut above ordinary mortals who are happy to use a plainer style.

What applies to formal writing also applies to more formal speech, e.g. public addresses.

In less formal writing padding may well make sentences sound less stark, and in informal conversations it could have a “lubricating” effect; however, even in such contexts it should not be overdone – repeated use of words like basically, essentially, actually and like can become highly irritating and distracting, and a barrier to communication.   –ws– 

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