Grammar Basically, Why Your Cohort Isn’t Your Buddy |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Basically, Why Your Cohort Isn’t Your Buddy

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.

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6 responses to “Basically, Why Your Cohort Isn’t Your Buddy”

  1. paisley says:

    Thank you! This was great! Amusing and informative! I always look forward to your emails!

  2. Mildred Farrior says:

    I enjoy reading and can’t wait to take the free quiz each time it appears on my e-mail. I have a comment on this week’s nominees for “Hall of Shame.” Regarding the Prone, supine one I would like to clarify that when one is lying prone it is not on their stomach, but their abdomen. The stomach is one of the principal organs of digestion and is often confused by writers when referring to this position.

    • One of the dictionary definitions of the word stomach is “the part of the body that contains the stomach: belly, abdomen.” This is commonly used in American English. (You’re right that we were being figuratively rather than anatomically correct.)

  3. David Sarro says:

    The distinction between the meaning of “nauseous” and that of “nauseating” is a fine example of the creeping carelessness that infects usage, causing it to become less precise. Another, which I particularly rue, is the demise of the adjective “healthful” for describing a food or activity. No longer, it seems, do we describe apples as healthful. Instead, we say they’re “healthy,” perhaps like the tree on which they grow.

  4. Allan M. says:

    Hi, regarding the following extract, “lying” is extraneous. Using lying before either prone or supine is superfluous, n’ect-ce pas? And forever exile those who say laying rather then lying even when not being used superfluously.

    “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.”

    • There is some repetition there, but we wouldn’t necessarily advise people to avoid it. Merriam-Webster online mentions the following regarding use of the adjectives prone and supine: In literal use, prone and supine indicate contrasting positions of the body: a person lying prone is facing downward while a person lying supine is face up.

      And from the American Heritage Dictionary: The patient was lying prone on the bed.

      There may be value in including lying with prone on occasions to avoid any notion that the sentence is about prone in the meaning “having a tendency or inclination.”

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