Friday, December 2, 2016

The rise and fall of high and low

Business writers like to use the words ‘high’ and ‘low’ indiscriminately. Numbers can be high or low, but physical things such as ships can’t (except in the Panama Canal locks). Similarly, they use the verbs ‘rise’ and ‘fall’ – the process of becoming high or low – too much. If you use such words for things other than numbers, you give the impression that you aren’t thinking about the real world.
So, a recent draft report said: “The positive outlook is expected to result in higher demand,” it suggests that the writer was just thinking about numbers on a spreadsheet. Why not ‘more demand’ or ‘greater demand’?

I recently saw a shipping report declare that the fleet will “rise”, giving a mental picture of ships levitating, when the writer meant ‘grow’ or ‘expand’.

Once the habit is formed, these words drive out all others, behaving like invasive species and creating an inert ecosystem of language. A recent report spoke of “high competition”. Would you say that companies are ‘competing highly’? Of course not. Competition can be strong, aggressive, vigorous, stiff, stern and many other things. It can’t be high.

Moral: Never forget literal meanings when using words figuratively.


  1. Is "see" also driving out many other words? As in: Parliament's decision will see the poor get poorer. Victory will see United go to the top. Drinking and driving will see fatalities rise. Talk about invasive!

  2. I've been fighting a war against the (ab)use of "see" in South African newspapers. Not winning even minor battles, though. It's rampant. Is there a way we can get some big guns behind us? The Guardian etc?