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Jack Smith

Why? Why? Just Because, of Course

September 17, 1987|JACK SMITH

John W. Smith of Cathedral City has asked me to explain the proliferation of the phrase of course --especially on television and in The Times.

"Perhaps it's just me," he says, "but everywhere I turn I keep bumping into that obnoxious phrase. . . . What really frosts me, though, are such publications as the Los Angeles Times. One recent edition had 26 of courses. Why? Why? Why?

"The point of reading a newspaper is presumably to obtain information; if the reader already knows what is being told, then there is no need to tell it."

(Of course one may wonder why Mr. Smith needs three whys .)

As proof of his complaint, he has sent me a batch of paragraphs torn from The Times, in each of which the offensive phrase occurs. I agree with him that in no instance was the phrase really necessary.

Though he doesn't accuse me of using the phrase, he might well have. It is a weakness of mine. I once received a letter complaining that I had used it four times in one column. The column was enclosed to prove it.

Of course it doesn't mean anything, and it adds no substance to any sentence. It is a common failing of columnists. If it has a purpose, I suspect it is to assure the reader that you know he is already aware of what you are about to tell him, but you have to say it anyway, because of your less well-informed readers.

It is meant to apologize for asserting a platitude. Its purpose is to keep the reader from feeling patronized. One might say, for example: "Of course, New Guinea is the largest island in the world." One knows that most of his readers already know that New Guinea is the largest island in the world, but he has to say so, anyway, for those who don't, and as a basis for making his point.

Of course it can be overdone. Sometimes it is used to introduce something so well known that it can not be a secret to anyone. It is ridiculous, thus, to write "Ronald Reagan, who is of course President. . . ."

The phrase of course is a cousin to the apophasis, which of course is the making of an assertion while at the same time pretending to deny it. This is a standard device of politicians, who like to say something by denying that they are going to say it.

"Of course, I am not going to raise the subject of religion in this debate. . . ."

A common apophasis is the statement that so-and-so "needs no introduction," followed by a tediously long one. A man once introduced me by saying I needed no introduction. Then he sat down, leaving me speechless.

Needless to say, we all use apophasis. "I need not point out. . . ." "It goes without saying. . . ." "Not to mention. . . ."

As Lazarus, MacLeish and Smith define it in "Modern English: A Glossary of Literature and Language," an apophasis "is often a means of informing an unknowing audience while at the same time complimenting that audience by courteously asserting that it already knows."

Besides being related to of course , apophasis, they point out, is also related to the counter word , a vague and general word used when the speaker is too lazy to find the more precise one.

"They range from the handy but unimaginative terms of approval or disapproval in conversation (fine, awful, fabulous) , to the catchall usage of the young (like, far out) , and the empty echoes of the intellectuals (adjusted, area, aspect, factor) , and anything ending with wise ."

Among Smith's clippings containing of courses one is curious for another reason. Obviously from the sports section, it quotes Raiders coach Tom Flores as saying of his quarterback: "He didn't play bad. He didn't play great."

Of course an academician would have said "He didn't play badly." But I would hate to hear a professional football coach use the proper adverbial form of the word when he's talking about his quarterback. If he was talking about Rusty Hilger, I'm sure he was right. Hilger didn't play good and he didn't play bad. And he certainly didn't play great.

That's only my opinion, needless to say.

And of course everyone knows that the largest island in the world is Greenland. New Guinea is only the second largest.

That goes without saying.

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