Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Sunday 27 September 2015

On an infuriating basis

How to illustrate a rant about an abstract topic? I don't know. Here's a soothing picture of a beautiful dahlia, like an exploding firework or the Big Bang, that I took in a garden in Wallington, Herts, earlier this week instead.

I'm reading Madeleine Bunting's The Plot / A Biography of My Father's English Acre (2009). It's about a small and remote piece of land in North Yorkshire that was leased by the author's father (a very difficult man, it seems) in 1957, and on which he built a Catholic chapel, while his wife and young children lived a few miles away in semi-poverty. He adorned the chapel with his own sculptures (which, frustratingly, are hardly illustrated). The book, despite focusing on a little patch, covers an awful lot of ground: history, families, religion, sheep, Englishness, war, tourism, hunting, forestry, moths, landscape among others. It's excellent, and I recommend it to you. It's written in gritty, chewy, relishable prose.

However, on page 15 this sentence occurs: 'The local tradition is that the old Mrs Bulmer was gathering water by yoke and pail from the stream on a daily basis well into old age.' Bunting has a good ear for language; how can she possibly not have heard the clunkingly cacophonous and cliched phrase 'on a daily basis' booming out like the bummest of bum notes? Why didn't she write 'every day', or just 'daily' instead? 

The construction 'on a such-and-such basis' infects language like an insidious bacillus, worming its way into everything from everyday speech to formal writing. You hear and read it all the time: on  a regular basis, on a temporary basis, on a voluntary basis, on a weekly basis, on a case-by-case basis, as well as other less common versions. There's almost always a shorter, more elegant alternative: what's wrong with, respectively: regularly, temporarily/temporary, voluntarily/voluntary, weekly/every week, case-by-case?

Why have these phrases become so near-universal? Maybe people feel that longer, more convoluted phrases, however ugly and cumbersome, must somehow be more sophisticated and impressive than shorter, simpler phrases. They are wrong. Brevity and grace are qualities to be prized in language (except when the writer or speaker consciously breaks these rules to achieve a particular effect).

I think that those who use this construction should be forced by law to memorise the following paragraph, and to repeat it in front of a panel of linguistic pedants on what they would no doubt call a monthly, weekly, daily, hourly, and even if necessary a minute-by-minute basis:

On a daily basis he ran for the bus on a fast basis and jumped aboard on a last minute basis. The driver sold him a ticket on a grumpy basis and he sat down on an exhausted basis. The occupant of  the seat next to him was leaking music from his headphones on a noisy basis, and his seat was so hard that he sat on an uncomfortable basis. Thus he did not start his days on a good basis.

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