Monday, June 13, 2011

As Marvin Gaye didn't say, "What's ongoing?"

What did we say before "ongoing" came into fashion? And when did it come into fashion? As you can see from this Google Ngram, it hardly existed before the 1960s. More to the point, should we worry?

Purists (and I'm one) are often seen as reactionary and hostile to change. But English changes more quickly and dynamically than almost any other language, as anyone who has tried to read Beowulf in the original knows, and people who are hostile to all change are hostile to the very soul of English.

But I don't embrace all change. Any change that narrows expression and promotes sloppy thinking should be resisted, and those are the grounds on which I oppose "ongoing", to the extent that the word has never been published in any piece of writing that has crossed my desk.

Firstly, it's unnecessary. The word "continuing" does the job just as well and has been with us for years, but even this is seldom needed. By inventing a word simply because you don't know the right word, you are degrading the language and entrenching your own ignorance. Buy a thesaurus. 
Take the following examples from BBC News today:
The cost of ongoing medical treatment and repatriation can quickly rack up.

At the heart of the documentary is an ongoing argument about British freedom and shifts in the political, musical and cultural landscape.

We discuss the ongoing situation in Syria.

Sonae has apologised to local people over the ongoing smoke coming out of the plant. 
In each of these sentences, the word "ongoing" can simply be deleted with no loss of meaning whatsoever. Don't these writers know what the present tense means? (The last example is awful in other ways, but this is the BBC so we shouldn't expect too much.)

Secondly, and more importantly, the popularity of "ongoing" is a symptom of timid writing, of which there are two kinds. The first is where extra words are poured into a sentence with the (usually unconscious) aim of diluting the meaning. "Ongoing" is used as a standard adjective that adds no meaning to a sentence and occasionally adds a meaning that the writer did not intend. I recall a traffic report on the radio that stated, "The A40 is closed due to an ongoing accident," as if cars were still piling into each other in super-slow-motion as the reporter was speaking.*

The other timid use is when the sentence has been twisted around and has to be untwisted before "ongoing" is deleted (as it always should be), as in:
Inquiries by Lambeth officers into the circumstances of the incident are ongoing, and detectives from Trident have been informed. Guardian, 7 July 2011
Before we disentangle the sentence, let's ask why this displays cowardice by the writer (in this case a press officer for the Metropolitan Police, quoted by the Press Association). If we say that something is ongoing, then we are spared from taking the terrifyingly bold step of saying that an identifiable person or organisation is actually doing something. It's the same effect as using the passive voice, which we were all warned about in school.

We separate cause from effect and create vagueness where there should be precision. We do this because, consciously or otherwise, we want to avoid ruffling the feathers of our sources, and this far outweighs our duty to provide a service to our readers. This is a contemptible attitude for any writer. If you have ever done it then you should be ashamed of yourself – sufficiently ashamed to vow never to do it again. That's why I'm here: to help you. Think of it as a public service.

And yet our press officer has failed even in that pathetic ambition, because in his mealy-mouthed way he has identified who is doing the investigating, as if there was ever any doubt. This shows how dangerous this phraseology has become, because it has become house style for corporate and government communication. Blandness and vagueness are prized above all else, such that they do it even when they don't need to.

So what should the spokesman have said? Since the only purpose of the statement is to tell the public what is happening, why not simply do that? He could have said:
"Lambeth officers are investigating the killing." 
That's six words instead of 12. It's clear, uncontroversial and factual. It says what is being done and who is doing it. It's not particularly graceful, but it lacks the tortured ugliness of the original. I have also replaced the vague and euphemistic "incident" with "killing". I'm inclined to leave the rest of the sentence unchanged even though it uses a passive voice, because it doesn't matter who told the detectives from Operation Trident. The important thing is that they were told.

Since the journalist at the Press Association can't tinker with the quote, was there anything he or she could have done? I wouldn't have used the full quote, perhaps writing:
The spokesmen said that Lambeth officers were investigating, and added, "Detectives from Trident have been informed."
There's an even simpler option:
The spokesmen added, "Detectives from Trident have been informed."
After all, it's not really news that police officers investigate when a man is shot dead. It might be news that Operation Trident is involved – depending on your view on reporting race in crime stories – because this is the Metropolitan Police's way of saying what they can't say directly: that this was a black man shot by a black gang.

Another recent example is notable for its awkwardness of expression:

Winning championships was a habit many on Merseyside believed to be unbreakable but little did they know that, 21 years later, the wait for the 19th would still be ongoing. (Louise Taylor, Guardian, 16 May 2011)

Doesn't the awkwardness leap out of the page? It would have been so much more natural to write, "21 years later, they would still be waiting for the 19th." Again, "ongoing" is used to twist the words into an unnatural order and divorce the verb from its subject, so much so that the writer feels she can omit the subject altogether.

So that's my objection to "ongoing". It strips sentences of their cohesion and power, while enshrining vagueness of expression at the expense of directness. Winston Churchill could have said, "The fight will be ongoing. There will be no surrender." He didn't. He said, "We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender." We are left in no doubt as to who will be doing the fighting: we shall.

Reporters should use language to convey the truth, not disguise it. 

Moral: If the fight against sloppy language is ongoing, then who is doing the fighting?

*I can't provide a citation for this, but it was definitely BBC London radio. The road might not have been the A40.

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