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March 28th, 2007

Word inflation / all set / at this point in time

by Barbara Wallraff

John Voiles, of Shelby Township, Mich., writes: “Can you comment on the overuse of the word ‘amazing’? It seems I cannot tune in to a TV or radio show without hearing this word. No one ever clarifies or describes what is ‘amazing.’ I instantly change the channel at the first use of this word, and sometimes that is 15 seconds into the show.”

Dear John: “Amazing,” “awesome,” “stunning,” “incredible,” “unbelievable,” “fabulous,” “unique” -- these are all words that have been subject to inflation over time. To be literally amazed is a powerful experience -- as it is to be awed, stunned or unable to believe one’s senses, to feel as if something belongs in a fable or to come across something that’s the only one of its kind.

It’s only natural that people will sometimes overstate their case. For instance, anyone who doesn’t know that most women would rather be told they look “amazing” than told they look “nice” hasn’t been paying attention. There’s no harm in such hyperbole until someone actually is amazed by something and wants to say so. Then the accurate word falls short.

The solution to the problem is, as you suggest, to describe what elicited amazement -- to “show, rather than tell,” as writing teachers put it. Amazing someone the same way you were amazed is a much more direct way of communicating than just announcing what your response was. I’d love to give you an example. Unfortunately, though, truly amazing -- or awesome or stunning, etc. -- things don’t come along very often.

George Montee, of Fort Fairfield, Maine, writes: “My brother teases me for saying ‘all set’ -- for instance: ‘No more coffee for me. I’m all set.’ Is my use of the phrase incorrect?”

Dear George: No. There’s nothing wrong with “all set.” English is full of little phrases like this, with meanings you’d never guess from the meanings of the individual words. Think of “all in,” meaning “exhausted”; “at all,” meaning “in any way, shape or form”; “set about,” meaning “start”; or “set out,” meaning “try.”

Though these other phrases appear in dictionaries, I checked four dictionaries for “all set” and, curiously, didn’t find anything exactly relevant under “set” -- or “all.” But the phrase is familiar to me, dictionaries don’t warn against using it, and it often turns up in respectable print sources like newspapers. Usually it means “ready” -- as in this headline about the forthcoming Harry Potter book, from Newsday: “All Set for ‘Potter 7.’” It’s also used the way you use it, to mean something like “finished” -- as in this sentence from a recent “Ask Heloise” column: “Add a salad and rolls or crackers, and you’re all set.”

Bill Churchill, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “The use of ‘at this point in time’ aggravates me. Couldn’t people say ‘at this time,’ ‘now,’ ‘today’ or ‘as of now’?”

Dear Bill: Good ideas all. “At this point in time” annoys lots of people, because it’s wordy and windy -- puffed up. It’s a paradox of our language that people who try to make “now,” among other straightforward ideas, sound especially official or important usually end up just making themselves sound insincere.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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