What phrases do you find irritating? One of my favourites, scoring a 10 on the Annoyance Scale, is ‘was to be’ – a phrase some historians just luuurve to sprinkle through their work. You know: ‘Young Winston was to be one of the greatest statesmen Britain had ever seen.’
It’s irritating on three levels. One is the point that it’s sloppy writing. It mashes up tenses – the ‘to be’ part is past tense from the perspective of the reader, but future tense from the perspective of the subject. That’s clunky. In a written sense, it’s also passive.
The other is a technical historical point. We don’t know our futures. The people we write about from the past didn’t, either. And despite the hopeful fantasies of the Whigs, history is also not pre-destined. To suggest that something ‘was to be’, to my mind, carries far too much impute of pre-destiny – something that just doesn’t happen in reality.
And the third problem I have with it is the fact that ‘was to be’ sometimes isn’t even used to presage some future event, but merely as a narrative junction. I still recall trying to read the official history of New Zealand’s Vietnam war, where the term was used so often in this way that I was left wondering whether the author actually understood English tenses.
Do you have pet phrases that annoy you – or that you find yourself using and then regretting? Do share!
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015