Thusly, prior to and commence: a posey of pomposity

pomposity

I think we all know at least one person who speaks as though they’re addressing a courtroom or their own nation  — even when they’re in the line for the bathroom or firing off a hasty text. Three tell-tale signs of linguistic pomposity are the words thus (or, even worse, thusly), commence, and prior to — all of which have perfectly sound and simple synonyms without all the airs and graces. Let’s see what some of today’s — and yesterday’s — linguists have to say about them.

Thus (or thus far): Thus, so the OED says succinctly, is “now chiefly literary or formal”. Thus, unless you’re Shakespeare or Chief Whip, use so. “Some people think ‘thus far’ is too snobby or stuffy, but in terms of meaning, it’s the same as ‘so far’.” So says the YUNiversity of Grammar.

Thusly: A couple of years ago, the New York Times‘s After Deadline blog explained why thusly just isn’t a viable word. ““Thus,” meaning “in this way” or “therefore,” is an adverb. “-Ly” is a suffix that turns an adjective into an adverb. Since “thus” is already an adverb, it has no need for “-ly.” So “thusly” is unnecessary — colloquial at best, illiterate in the view of many readers.”

As Mark Davidson says in his book Right, Wrong and Risky: “Thusly gets almost no respect … You need supreme self-confidence to use this much-maligned variant of the adverb thus. Thusly, which word sleuths suspect was coined in the mid-19th century as a humorous American variant of thus, has been taken seriously by almost nobody in America’s usage establishment. Descriptions of thusly have ranged from “superfluous” (Theodore M. Bernstein’s Careful Writer) to “an abomination” (William and Mary Morris’ Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage).”

Prior to: “You are committing an offense against English if you use the phrase prior to as a substitute for the preposition before, according to the “Language Corner” of the Columbia Journalism Review,” reports Davidson. “What in heaven’s name is wrong with before?” Enough said on that subject …

Commence: As Barrie England commented (I thought rather wittily) on StackExchange about the use of commence instead of begin, “My entirely intuitive thought is that begin is less formal than commence. Dylan Thomas began his play for voices, ‘Under Milk Wood’, with the words ‘To begin at the beginning.’ He didn’t, with good reason, write ‘To commence at the commencement.’”

Commence, which at one time was described by the OED as “precisely equivalent to the native begin“, has been variously described as a “formal”, “fancy” or “stilted” alternative; Merriam-Webster acknowledges that it is often considered “pretentious”, “old-fashioned”, “inappropriate”, “bookish”, or “pedantic”. As Longman pointed out, even back in 1874 George Eliot used the word ironically in Middlemarch: “Things never began with Mr. Borthrop Trumbull; they always commenced, both in private and on his handbills.”

Fowler did concede that certain circumstances prescribe the use of the more formal alternative: “In official announcements commence is appropriate: the play-bill tells us when the performance will commence, though we ask each other when it begins. The grave historical style also justifies commence, & historians’ phrases, such as commence hostilities, keep their form when transferred to other uses, though we begin, & do not commence, a quarrel; similarly we commence operations, but merely begin dinner.”

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About these “formal words” generally, Fowler in his Modern English Usage offered his own typically quirky explanation. “There are large numbers of words differing from each other in almost all respects, but having this point in common, that they are not the plain English for what is meant, not the form that the mind uses in its private debates to convey to itself what it is talking about, but translations of these into language that is held more suitable for public exhibition. We tell our thoughts, like our children, to put on their hats & coats before they go out; we want the window shut, but we ask if our fellow passenger would mind its being closed; we think of our soldiers as plucky fellows, but call them in the bulletins valiant troops. These outdoor costumes are often needed; not only may decency be outraged sometimes by over-plain speech; dignity may be compromised if the person who thinks in slang writes also in slang; to the airman it comes natural to think & talk of his bus, but he does well to call it in print by another name.”

“Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen,
Our bending author hath pursu’d the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.”

— William Shakespeare, Henry V

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