Phrases that I find grating

For some reason, I find certain phrases particular jarring. Three that immediately come to mind are:

“In any way, shape, or form”

“The last time I checked”

“Make no mistake about it”

Whenever a speaker uses any of those phrases, I cringe and think slightly less of them and the things they are saying, which is unfair I know but I cannot help it. I have tried to pin down why these phrases annoy me so much. It is not only because they are clichés, though they are. Each one has an extra quality that makes it stand out over other tired and worn out phrases.

I think I dislike the first one because it represents rhetorical overkill, implying that there is absolutely no room for any disagreement. The second bothers me because it usually precedes a sarcastic or sneering comment, and is often a prelude to a put-down that implies the person uttering it is saying something so obvious that the person it is targeted at must be an idiot to think otherwise. The third one sounds too peremptory and has a faintly menacing or threatening tone.

I think we would be better served by retiring these phrases and replacing them with new ones that convey the same basic message without the negative connotations.


  1. DonDueed says

    Well, our rich English language already has other phrases for all of these.

    How about: “at all”, “as far as I know”, and “I’m certain”, for starters?

  2. Guess Who? says

    “That goes without saying” — Then why say it?

    “Of course…” used to add something that’s completely unrelated to the thing just said. For example, “I think I’ll order pizza for dinner tonight. Of course, I didn’t like the play Romeo and Juliet.”

  3. OverlappingMagisteria says

    Let me take this opportunity to add two of my own grating phrases:

    “Brain-child” – This one just sounds weird. Did your brain get pregnant and give birth? Why not just say “idea”?

    “Nest-egg” – I don’t know why this one bothers me. Maybe I just have something against phrases made of two monosyllabic words..

  4. says

    Mere words are just as bad:
    There is all that business of being at the centre of things. Why, now, is it no longer just a centre, but has become intensified into an Epicentre?
    Is this the choice, now, of epicures?
    I suppose the prefix was innocently introduced by well-meaning geologists describing earthquakes, but for them it surely isn’t an intensive, it simply means that, since earthquakes tend to take place underground there is a place on the surface that is directly above the centre of the quake. That’s all the “epi” bit means–‘on’ or ‘above’ or ‘near’.
    Indeed the science magazine New Scientist once had a correction of their misuse in an earlier edition of ‘epicentre’: they had actually printed that the recent quake’s “epicentre was 10 kilometers below the surface”, presumably under the influence of a deep hatred for all those idiots who never bothered to find out what ‘epicentre’ means.

    And why, oh why, is it that every single change is now a sea-change? I’m getting seasick of it! What is so intensive about “sea” anyway? Presumably “sea-change” comes from the Tempest—from Ariel’s lovely, invisible song, and surely, if only out of respect for Ferdinand’s father, the phrase should be reserved for changes that involve an end-point that is rich, strange and at least four and a half fathoms under water.

    Make no mistake about it, I do like a good rant, in any way, shape, or form. The last time I checked, there never seems to be much of a chance to do it, so thanks for the opportunity.

  5. Ravi Venkataraman says

    Another irritating phrase:

    It is what it is. (How can it ever be what it is not?)

  6. Trickster Goddess says

    One that I loathe is that so many news reports are ended with the phrase “… remains to be seen.”

  7. embertine says

    Ravi, my ex-boss used to say this so often that his staff ironically made him a mug with it written on. He did not take the hint.

    My least favourite is “I have to say”, because like your #1 and #3, they are generally said by people who like the sound of their own voices a bit too much. Also, you really don’t have to say, pompous person. No-one is going to spontaneously combust if you just STFU.

    Similarly, “in my humble opinion”. Only ever said by people who think their opinion is a damn sight less humble than everyone else’s.

  8. Corvus illustris says

    “It is what it is. (How can it ever be what it is not?)”

    Was this question not considered by the Indian philosophical schools? It certainly bothered Parmenides, and thus Zeno (no, not Zenoferox).

  9. Corvus illustris says

    I am not entitled to say “Don’t say I didn’t warn you” (one of my pet-peeve phrases), because I didn’t warn you. Nonetheless, here’s a warning: any thread on this subject is bound to turn into a catalogue longer than Leporello’s.

  10. Rob Grigjanis says

    “Just do it”
    “Cut to the chase”
    “I could go on”

    I could go on.

  11. MNb says

    “Whenever a speaker uses any of those phrases, I cringe and think slightly less of them”
    Even when a non-native English speaker as me does? That’s very unfair indeed.
    Of course there are Dutch counterparts.

  12. teawithbertrand says

    “Pop the question” and “Tie the knot” in the context of marriage proposals and wedding have always irritated me for some reason. Also, “in this day and age” seems a little redundant (and obnoxious). I have a notebook at home with a list of phrases that I hate. I used to have considerable free time.

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    Phrases that bother me much less than they used to, for some reason;

    Kids these days
    Get off my lawn
    That’s not music, it’s just noise

  14. Corvus illustris says

    Even when a non-native English speaker as me does?

    Actually, many native speakers find the use of idioms (ok, then, clichés) by non-native speakers to be impressive evidence that the speaker is thinking in the non-native language, so the effect is positive. BTW, rather than “as me” you mean “like me,” a hypercorrection more typical of native speakers who don’t consciously think about syntax. 🙂 If you did that intentionally, see my first sentence.

    Did Mano ever say whether English is his first language?

  15. Chiroptera says

    Me, I think a list of “annoying phrases” is like a list of “bad movies” or “bad music”: one person’s tired cliche is another person’s rhetorical spice that livens the discourse.

    Me, it’s not individual phrases that I find annoying so much. What I hate is how so much of contemporary political discourse in the US seems to be just a long string of cliches, platitudes, and feel-good slogans with no actual facts or reasoned analysis.

  16. Scr... Archivist says

    So, in my humble opinion, these phrases annoy more than cliches because of dishonesty and superfluousness.

    At the end of the day, they are filler, taking up space when a shorter and simpler word or phrase could be used. I think we can all agree that they some of these cliche’s are also used to give the appearance of consensus.

    The second bothers me because it usually precedes a sarcastic or sneering comment, and is often a prelude to a put-down….

    Yeah, no.

    Professor Singham, just think of the synergy.

    Just sayin’.

  17. robb says

    i agree with machintelligence : “quantum leap” is annoying.

    so is “high rate of speed”

  18. sailor1031 says

    Irregardless of what I, myself, personally think at the end of the day the bottom line is diddly-squat!

  19. mikeym says

    From The Simpsons:

    Network Executive Lady: We at the network want a dog with attitude. He’s edgy, he’s “in your face.” You’ve heard the expression, “let’s get busy”? Well, this is a dog who gets “biz-zay!” Consistently and thoroughly.

    Krusty: So he’s proactive, huh?

    Network Executive Lady: Oh, God, yes. We’re talking about a totally outrageous paradigm.

    Writer: Excuse me, but “proactive” and “paradigm”? Aren’t these just buzzwords that dumb people use to sound important? Not that I’m accusing you of anything like that. [pause] I’m fired, aren’t I?

    Roger Myers Jr.: Oh, yes.

  20. Paladynian says

    It might be a regional difference, but my experiences here in central Canada have had “last time I checked” act not as a precursor for sarcasm but rather as a short-hand for “your question is true to my current understanding, but might have changed without me being aware… is there a problem that requires me to check again?”.

    For example:

    “Is there gas in the car?”

    “Last time I checked?”

    Namely, there was gas when last I used it but someone else may have driven it since, so don’t trust my accuracy 100%.

    Perhaps the fact that I’ve always heard it as a question and not a declarative statement makes all the difference. Of course the whole Canadian habit of ending statements as an uncertain question might be a factor too, eh?

  21. AsqJames says

    A few years ago I started hearing radio presenters say “…and we’ll keep you across all of that throughout the day” or similar phrases. They mean “we’ll keep you updated on [x]”, but at some indeterminate point in time, somebody somewhere decided the word “across” meant “informed”.

    It drives me nuts, and more so because I tend to listen to national BBC radio stations, so that’s where I hear it (it may also be used on local and commercial radio – I couldn’t tell you). This is important because it’s being used by employees of an institution thought of by many as quasi-authoritative on the English language. Millions of people probably hear this usage and think it’s correct, or at least widely accepted. And what’s more, the longer it goes on, the more likely they are to be right.

    Basically I’m in grumpy old man mode. Which makes me even more grumpy seeing as I’m only in my 30s damnit!

  22. khms says

    What irritates me is people making lists of irritating phrases, because they associate those phrases with situations where they don’t belong, completely ignoring that there are enough places where they can be (and are) used just fine.

    Of course sometimes you really can’t escape the bad associations, but it seems to me that’s actually pretty rare.

    And of course, some phrases some other commenters mentioned really do not seem to have any correct applications, but that’s not true of those in the OP.

    Phrases that irritate me: “I could care less” and similar negation-challenged phrases. “America, land of the free” and similar descriptions of a nation trying frantically to eliminate liberty. Stuff like that.

  23. Lofty says

    Hah, I’ve been a grumpy old man since I worked out that adults had lied to me about Santa.
    Wordiness for the sake of wordiness has always annoyed me.

  24. sithrazer says

    I find I use “the last time I checked” in situations where things are known to change, like video games and software. The problem isn’t then a snide remark, but when was it the last time you checked.

  25. says

    Use of “begging the question” to mean “inviting the question” rather than referring to the logical fallacy is my bugbear. (It’s very common in Australia particularly amongst pop-media and sports journalists, not sure about the rest of the world.)

    I am so on board with khms re “I could care less.” Well, why don’t you then?

    Others: “whole entire”, “a whole ‘nother”, “literally” (when meaning something other than literally).

    The “way, shape or form” expression likely stems from the rhythm of grouping things in three in English, such as “lock, stock and barrel”. It does tend to get overused, however.

  26. Hamilton Jacobi says

    On a positive note, Mano, yesterday I was pleased to see that you used the intransitive verb wax correctly. These days it seems that everyone but English majors and astronomy buffs tends to use it mainly in sentences of the form, “Rush Limbaugh was waxing on about how much he hates gays.” It is good to see that dictionary editors are standing firm against this barbarism.

  27. says

    @MattR, #24:

    Oh yes. “Literally” is the one that gets me, too. But some people don’t even understand when it is pointed out to them.

    “My jaw was literally on the floor!”
    “Surely you don’t mean ‘literally’.”
    “I do!”
    “So your jaw was actually on the floor, not just metaphorically, your jaw was really in contact with the floor.”
    “Yes! Exactly!”
    “Were you laying down, or had your jaw been disconnected from your body in some fashion?”
    “No. Why do you ask?”

  28. smrnda says

    I detest the use of the term ‘literally’ not just because it ends up being incorrect in usage, but because I find people who use that word use it in nearly every other sentence. The only correct use I ever heard was someone who said “Albert Speer was the literal architect of the Nazi Party.” (Meaning he designed buildings.) “Going ballistic” is an expression that I really hate as well.

    An American slang expression that I really find irritating is the use of ‘anal’ to mean someone who is obsessively neat and tidy or otherwise preoccupied with order. Perhaps I’m only irritated because I know that the original of the term is from ‘anal retentive’ and I had few people claim that it was an abbreviation for ‘analytical.’

    Note on myself, my language usage has been influenced by the fact that I’ve probably spent more time communicating with non-native rather than native speakers of English. Non-native speakers will ask lots of questions about these expressions, and that always made me realize how much many of them did not make sense.

  29. Mano Singham says

    I really never learned formal grammar. so I would not be able to tell you what an ‘intransitive verb’ was. I learned much of the language by simply reading a lot and now have a sense of what to say by whether it ‘feels’ right. Unfortunately, this is not always a reliable guide and from time to time I do say things that violate the strict rules of grammar. What I try to avoid is saying something outright horrendous.

  30. Corvus illustris says

    … Rush Limbaugh was waxing on …

    and On looked odd with that wax all over him. From Horse Feathers, I think:

    Straight man: The dean is waiting outside right now and he’s waxing wroth!
    Groucho: Well, tell Roth to wax the dean for a while.

    Variant: Roth looks really strange with that wax all over him. (The brothers reused this item quite a bit; it started as an ad lib. on the stage.)

  31. Hamilton Jacobi says

    I don’t know much grammar either, but the concept of transitive versus intransitive verbs is similar to that of a transitive relation in mathematics. If A = B and B = C, the fact that equality is a transitive relation means that A = C; i.e., equality transits or passes through B and expresses a relationship directly between A and C.

    Likewise, a transitive verb expresses a relationship between a subject and object (the moon orbits the earth), whereas an intransitive verb has no object (the moon waxes and wanes).

    My comment was not really about grammar; it had more to do with your correct usage of “wax” in the sense of “grow,” as opposed to the increasingly common usage of “talk” (not found in the dictionary, and I hope it remains that way). I learned this meaning of “wax” from descriptions of the phases of the moon, and maybe you did too.

  32. Hamilton Jacobi says

    Groucho always says it better. One of my favorites:

    Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.

  33. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Rather than ‘like me’, you mean ‘such as I’. A hypercorrection by an annoying pedant.

  34. Acolyte of Sagan says

    If I’m being honest’ or ‘to be honest’ always suggest to me that the speaker usually isn’t. But that’s merely annoying; what really grates on me is the way Americans pronounce ‘laboratory’ to rhyme with ‘lavatory’. PLEASE STOP IT! It’s la-borra-tor-ree, with emphasis on borra. How the hell are you spposed to attract kids into science when you insist on making the scientists workplace sound like a bloody toilet (restroom – another bugbear; one doesn’t rest in there).

  35. Corvus illustris says

    You guys just won’t rest until you reconquer your lost colonies, hey?

    Re lavatory and toilet: both these words originally meant something else, were commandeered as euphemisms, and now are used in the familiar way (you don’t just wash in a lavatory or put on your makeup in a toilet). Moreover, lavatory seems to be prononunced “lava-tree”–thus suggesting a geological formation–at least by singing lumberjacks.

  36. shanti rasiah says

    I only use those phrases when I want to make some one arrogant feel really small. We can avoid
    using them with nice people so it all depends on the people we are addressing. Annoying phrases
    to be used on annoying people I should think is ok.

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