“Of Course” and “Obviously” In Writing

Even when I think it’s unimportant….Even when I know I shouldn’t judge….I always end up focusing on a person’s choice of words and use of language in general.

Sometimes I read an essay where a person uses an interesting and pitch-perfect word, and then I see it show up again a few paragraphs later and it’s a let down. Or I have two oral conversations with someone and very quickly pick up on a favorite word or construction. Examples. One friend loves to talk about "policy cleavages" in politics, another uses the word "dynamic" as an all-purpose noun to describe almost anything, another uses "amusing" as his choice humor superlative. Nothing wrong with this — I just neurotically focus on it. I have my own go-to phrases and words such as the construction "so as to…".

Bryan Caplan today challenges conventional writing advice which says avoid the over-used phrases "of course" and "obviously." If it’s obvious, the advice goes, why do you need to say it?!

Why is it so hard to surrender these words?  The main reasons: When you say "obviously," or "of course"…

1. …listeners know not to waste time looking for a complicated rationale behind your statement. What they see is what they get.

2. …listeners can identify your starting points. It may be obvious that X is true, and obvious that X–>Y, but if you just start with Y, people will be confused.

3. …listeners find out what you take for granted.  If it’s different from what they take for granted, that’s news.

This is something I’ve thought about and notice very consciously when reading. In general, I dislike the phrases. I believe reason #3 above can be used condescendingly. People couch what is not an obvious point with the phrase "obviously" to indicate higher intelligence. Or people drop "of course" left and right because of their own intellectual insecurity — they don’t know what’s obvious or not, so they insist that all is obvious to them. Of course, hard and fast rules about writing should never be followed, and obviously there’s a time and place for everything.

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I feel less passionately than some about the semi-colon. I only know one proper way to use it (there are other ways). E.g.: "I wasn’t sure if I was going to like the book; however, I read it anyway because Joe recommended it." Semi-colon followed by "however" or some other transitional phrase. Otherwise, I never use semi-colons. Here’s Michael Kinsley from a long piece on semi-colons:

“The most common abuse of the semicolon, at least in journalism,” explains Kinsley, “is to imply a relationship between two statements without having to make clear what that relationship is. I suppose there are worse crimes in the world. (I don’t know if Osama bin Laden uses semicolons or not.) But Fred did have it right.”

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All this talk about phrases and semicolons distracts from a more pressing point: the world would be a much better place if a majority of people correctly used "it’s" and "its."

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I’m far from a perfect writer or grammar-follower. Part of why I blog about this stuff is being public about it forces me to a high standard, and also invites readers to point out corrections in my prose.

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