11 Forms of Word Patronage to Forgo

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Various specimens of a curious class of self-referential expressions often find their way into spoken and written discourse. Such locutions in speech are nigh inevitable, because spontaneous communication frequently necessitates verbal placeholders, and the speaker’s self-consciousness or self-regard demands self-induced back-pedaling or backslapping.

However, in both oration and composition — especially in the latter, because the writer has ample opportunity to omit them — they call undue attention to the writer’s putative sagacity and/or wit and are usually labored and distracting.

Bryan A. Garner, the dean of American English usage, calls such phrasing “word patronage”; rhetoricians refer to it as metanoia or correctio. I’ve never met one that didn’t annoy me, and I advise correction:

1. As It Were
This truncation of the subjunctive (conjectural) “as if it were so” ostensibly invites the reader to note that a preceding statement or expression is more practical that precise for the context, an imperfect metaphor: “The competition between Starbucks and Peet’s is a tempest in a coffee cup, as it were.” But its true — and superfluous — function is to say, “There, wasn’t that clever?”

2. If I May Say So
Also rendered as “If I may be so bold,” this apology has such a musty Victorian odor of mock humility that it is suitable only in a jocular sense: “If I may be so bold, your dog’s mandibular attachment to my ankle is counterproductive to my health.”

3. If You Will
This phrase, an abbreviation of “If you will allow me to use the phrase,” is more innocuous than its variations “If you will pardon my saying so” and “If you will permit me to say,” which warn the recipient of a communication that what follows may be critical or provocative. “If you will,” conversely, merely asks the reader to accept an interpretation, but an argument should stand on its own, without such verbal bowing and scraping.

4. In a Manner of Speaking
This almost meaningless expression is intended as an apology for how an idea or opinion is expressed: “Are you calling me crazy?” “In a manner of speaking, yes.”

5. It Goes Without Saying
This is a gentler way of saying, “It should be obvious,” as in “It goes without saying that the belief in alien abduction is a fringe belief.” If it goes without saying, then don’t say that it goes without saying.

6. Not to Put Too Fine a Point on It
This elaborately pretentious expression is deployed usually before but sometimes after one writes exactly what one means, even if it may offend a reader. The writer is, in this case, doing just the opposite — putting a fine point, or jabbing, the reader with the truth: “Not to put too fine a point on it, but your breath is toxic.”

7. Not to Mention
Of course, this phrase immediately precedes something mentioned in spite of the writer’s promise not to mention it: “The flooding ruined the furniture, not to mention the floor.” It is perhaps the most innocuous entry on this list (I say so because I use it sometimes), sometimes helpful to emphasize that what follows is more significant a point than an earlier statement, but consider, during revision, whether your statement can stand on its own without it.

8. So to Speak
“So to speak” is a simpler version of “in a manner of speaking,” though some wits — myself included — indulge in its use after an accidental (or a deliberate) pun, to make sure the listener noticed it and is duly amused: “The pregnant woman was expectant, so to speak.” In writing, however, it is ingratiating and grating.

9. To Coin a Phrase
This phrase is an apology for using a cliché, an attempt by the writer to ensure that the reader knows the writer is contrite about letting a trite expression loose: “It’s like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, to coin a phrase.”

10. To Say Nothing
This is a milder variation on “not to mention” with a stronger connotation that what’s about to be mentioned is more significant: “Her perfume annoyed me, to say nothing of her manner.”

11. With All Due Respect
This obsequious apology serves to smooth the not-yet-ruffled feathers of someone whose ego is about to be bruised: “With all due respect, I disagree.” The speaker or writer is acknowledging the superior authority and/or wisdom, or other qualities, of the listener or reader. Instead of employing this preface, however, either soften the blow or commit to striking it.

If you find yourself writing any of these phrases, consider it a signal to rework the passage.

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8 thoughts on “11 Forms of Word Patronage to Forgo”

  1. This list is lovely! Not in the way that I’m going to avoid all of these phrases from now on, but in the way that it reminds me how much I love the arbitrariness, the superfluity, the sometimes utter politesse of the English language. With all due respect, this list shall be used, for me, as a reference and a reminder for phrases I will try to keep in mind, as it would be such a shame to forget them and, especially, never to use them!

  2. “To Coin a Phrase” sounds like a malapropism to me.

    ‘Coin’ means to make or invent.

    To ‘coin’ a phrase means ‘make up a new one.

    As in ” Tim Berners-Lee coined the phrase ‘ World Wide Web.’

    Doesn’t the speaker really mean “to quote a phrase” or “to borrow a phrase.”

    If you’re using a cliche you’re not coining anything.


  3. I beg to differ (!), but if I may say so, “with all due respect,” while not useful in writing, is extraordinarily useful in dealing with grammar school principals, not to mention the occasional police officer about to give you something you don’t want for something you are pretty sure you didn’t do, as it were.

    None of which goes without saying…

  4. I use “as it were” when I use a silly metaphor, or a metaphor that is a long stretch. But it’s tongue in cheek. I find it useful, though. I also use “not to mention.” I like the rhythm of it. And it always reminds me of Jerome K. Jerome’s “Not to Mention the Dog.”

  5. One thing, if I may: I believe that these phrases can do a lot of heavy lifting in a play or tv/movie script. They can say a lot about a character. I wonder how many politicians in The West Wing uttered the words “with all due respect,” for example. Tone of voice and good acting can make any of those phrases sing.

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