The virtue of hmm

Hmm. Jason Rosenhouse did a post a few weeks ago saying what things he hates in writing. It pains me to say that I do some of them, and not seldom.

In fact one of them is “hmm,” which I use a lot, as you can see from the beginning of this post. I honestly typed it before remembering that it was one of the items…This is a “hmm” post, so there it appeared, as if by its own volition.

Sadly that’s the very first thing he mentions.

Starting a sentence with “Uhm” or “Hmmmm,” for example.  This is an especially common one among blog writers.  It’s a silly and cliched way of suggesting that your opponent has not merely made a weak argument, but has actually said something unhinged and foolish.  In the early days of blogs this might have been a clever way of achieving a conversational tone, but now it’s so overused it just makes the writer look ridiculous.

But…but…but that’s not always what it’s for. I use it that way sometimes – or rather, I use it sometimes to express mild skepticism, as opposed to full-throttle skepticism. But mostly I use it to mark thought; to mark uncertainty, and groping, and thinking things through as I go. I think that’s all right, if you don’t do it every other sentence.

Ending a sentence with “no,” (or, more rarely, ”yes.”)  It’s a miserable excrescence the rhetorical world would be better off without.  This is obvious, no?

I do that occasionally, I think. It’s just a variation, that’s all. It’s irritating if it’s all over the place, but in moderation? I keep wanting to umm or hmm so I’ll just stop, instead.

“To be sure” is another one I can live without.  As in, “To be sure, everything I have said to this point is a ridiculous oversimplification with little basis in facts, logic or evidence.”  It makes you look pompous and full of yourself, since considerable education is required before it feels natural to use such a vapid nonsense phrase.

Hey! Now that’s not fair. I use it as a kind of joke. It’s a bit 18th century, a bit Johnson or Austen (who was 18th century in many of her linguistic habits); I use it because I like the oddity of a whiff of the 18th century now and then. (I don’t mean I think about it that consciously. I include that phrase now and then, and that’s why – it has a faintly antiquated note that amuses me.)

That’s it; the others I have no problem with. I mean withal.

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