Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"Kind Of" and "Sort Of" are The New "Um" and "Er"

I listen to a lot of podcasts, and one of my favorites is the Guardian's daily news podcast. Over the past year, I've noticed a new and irritating substitute for the pause -- the words "kind of" and "sort of". (My girlfriend, who is studying Speech Language Pathology, tells me these verbal placeholders are called "maze behaviors.") It tends to turn up in only in spoken (as opposed to written) British English, and is mostly occurs among younger people. Older Brits, no matter their social class, don't do this, but young journalists are all over this one, and it drives me nuts.

Now, mind you, there's nothing wrong with using "kind of" or "sort of" when you're presenting an analogy or a metaphor -- if you were to refer to your brain as a "kind of biological computer," that's a perfectly acceptable usage. It is a computer -- kind of -- and it is therefore, a kind of computer. Fine. The usage I object to is when the speaker sets one of these phrases off with wee verbal commas, "...your brain is a, kind of, biological computer..." When I hear that, I start to wonder if the speaker knows whether the brain is biological or not.

Here are some examples I collected last year. I could collect new examples, but I've been sitting on these for a while...

In May of last year, talking about the high prices of theme park admissions, Rebecca Smithers said:

"...you have to, kind of, look quite carefully at the figures, actually, I mean, the catch 22 is really on the, sort of, cutoff price for children..."

"...for the most popular rides, the real, sort of, white-knuckle rides..."

"...a fast track ticket, which is what Disneyland offers, which allows you to, sort of, jump right to the head of the queue..."

So was she talking about not looking carefully at something that isn't quite a cutoff price, a popular nearly exciting ride, and doing something resembling a jump to get to the head of the queue?

You get the idea.

Also in May of last year, Larry Elliott said:

"...inflation has remained pretty steady at between, sort of, two or three percent..."

"Sort of" two percent must be either one or three percent (but not actually two), and "sort of" three percent must be either two or four percent (but not actually three), yeah? So, let's see, it's now between one and four percent, but not two or three percent. I think.

Ugh. Good at maths, bad at Englishs, apparently.

The absolute nadir of the lot has to be Guardian movie critic Xan Brooks. Dear me. He hasn't been on the podcast much lately, but his spoken review last year of My Blueberry Nights, directed by Hong Kong film-maker Wong Kar Wai is the most astounding example of this verbal tic I've heard so far. Brace yourself.

"...(Wong Kar Wai) is a real, kind of, revered foreign language director, who is, basically, branching out and making this American film that also marks the screen debut of the singer Nora Jones, and she plays a, sort of, lovelorn twenty-something who, kind of, jets off in search of herself in classic, kind of, American road movie style."

"It's not a very demanding role, because she just, basically, kind of, has to look at a lot of things, and, kind of, smile and frown on command..."

"I found it a horrible, kind of, winsome, mash of American genre tropes, from the, sort of, smoky bars to the open-top sports car. It all felt a little bit, kind of, just, knocked off."

"...which is a really, kind of, admirable thing, and yet the actual, kind of, finished result, I think, falls into a lot of those same traps."

"It's got a, kind of, a charm to its, sort of, you know, unabashed romantic style, but it also has a few, kind of, cringy moments, and it never really has any, kind of, pace or drama. You feel that he's just, kind of, looking at things that he likes..."

"It doesn't have that, kind of, edginess that Mike Lee has. It's more, kind of, teenage poetry, kind of, improvisation. There's a lot of, kind of, heartfelt dialogs and, sort of, a lot of angst."

With so many wishy-washy modifiers, you have to wonder if he really watched the movie, or if he only kind of, sort of watched it.

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