I received an e-mail from a fellow fussbudget deploring basically. He considers it meaningless and useless, and if you think about it, he has a point. Say any sentence with it and without it, and basically there’s no change in meaning (see?).
Perhaps the most basic use of basically is as a promise to cut the nonsense and get down to business: “This plan is basically unworkable.” Fundamentally, essentially, and the bottom line is …are similar expressions.
Some people use basically as a sort of curtain-raiser, to give their remarks a smooth opening, like “I’d just like to say …” The trouble starts when it’s overused, and becomes a verbal crutch, alongside “um,” “like,” and “y’know.”
Sometimes basically can reflect a goal or a wish, like theoretically or in an ideal world. “Basically, I’m trying to work out four times a week.” Other times, we use it to temper our statements so that they don’t seem aggressive or bombastic. “I just basically feel that the country’s headed in the wrong direction.” We don’t want to come off as overbearing, and this use of basically is a way of backing off a bit, conveying what the user hopes is some measure of humility and humanity.
So, yes, basically is extraneous—but at least it’s innocuous if used sparingly. The question my correspondent raised is if it ever adds anything meaningful to a sentence. A whole lot of smart, articulate people use it; you really do hear it everywhere. It must fill some arcane need.
Maybe it’s because on its best day, basically can be used in all the senses discussed above: “I’d just generally like to say in all humility that essentially, in an ideal world, the bottom line is …” If you can express all that in one word, go ahead and use it.
As for me, though, here’s a sentence I have no problem with: Basically, avoid using basically.
On to this week’s nominees for the Hall of Shame:
Cohort Your friend is a crony, confidant, or collaborator, but not a cohort. In ancient Rome, a cohort was a division of 300-600 soldiers. So careful speakers and writers avoid cohort when referring to one person. Your cohort is not your comrade, ally, teammate, or assistant. It’s a whole group, gang, team, posse: “A cohort of laborers went on strike.”
Nauseous Once upon a time, if you said “I’m nauseous,” it meant you were disgusting. Yes, it’s true, nauseous and nauseating once were synonymous. Years of carelessness shifted the focus of the adjective from the cause of the nausea to the person affected. Still, word nerds get a secret chuckle from hearing an obnoxious person say he was “nauseous” last night.
Blond, blonde A blonde is a woman with blond hair. Note the different spellings. The e at the end applies exclusively to women, except when the word’s an adjective. According to the Associated Press Stylebook, both men and women have blond hair—no e in either case. (For the record, a man is a blond.)
Prone, supine “The victim was found lying prone, her eyes gazing sightlessly at a full moon.” Sorry, but this is a maneuver only the swivel-headed girl from The Exorcist could pull off, because when you’re prone, you’re lying on your stomach. Make that supine, which means “lying on one’s back.”
Indicated that “A full 72 percent of respondents indicated that they have a room in their home devoted to entertainment.” Indicated? How, by charades? Smoke signals? Some writers will do anything to avoid said. Don’t fuss up your writing with indicated, stated, asserted, uttered, averred, etc. I’m obviously not vetoing words like replied, added, declared, explained, which have valid shades of meaning. But when reporting simple speech, just go generic with sweet little ol’ said, over and over again. No one will notice and no one will mind.
—This was a classic Tom Stern grammar tip.