The Write Stuff
“At that point in time”
By Alan Crawford,
At That Point in Time is the title of a book by Fred Thompson, who was in the Senate from 1994 to 2003 and a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination five years after that. Thompson, who died three years ago, was probably best known to millions of Americans as a regular on NBC’s “Law and Order.”
Early in his career, though, Thompson was a counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, an experience that resulted in his book and its lamentable title. At That Point in Time, as the title of a serious and somber book, was not intended as humor or sarcasm. But it feels like it today because the phrase imposed itself on the American people during the Watergate hearings, in which Thompson played a small but significant role. Senators and the witnesses who testified before the committee said “at that point in time” so often that ordinary, commonsensical people rolled their eyes whenever they heard it.
The phrase became famous, or infamous, as an example of windy wordiness — or maybe wordy windiness. All “at that point in time” really meant was “then.” But senators and the Nixon administration officials paraded before them were far too important to speak clearly and succinctly and actually preferred to express themselves in big phrases when small ones would do just fine. They might have felt that such a phrase conveys precision when, of course, it doesn’t. (Also, some of them were trying to be evasive generally, having committed crimes they hoped to conceal.)
Unfortunately, you still hear and read the phrase today. A Google News search turns up 214,000 instances for “at this point in time.”
Jacques Barzun in Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers looks at how we routinely find highfalutin synonyms for what linguists and grammarians call “linking words.” These are words that, by their unassuming function in sentences, don’t need improvement. Barzun says “at this point in time” means nothing more than “now,” just as “as of” means no more than “at” or “by.” Maybe because Barzun did not live long enough — he died in 2012 at age 104 — he didn’t get the chance to hear sportscasters say “as of yet.” If he had, it would have killed him.
“In regards to” and “pertaining to,” which I see constantly, just mean “about.” “Prior to”? That means “before.” (Does anyone say “posterior to” to mean “after”?) The vaguely legalistic sound of these constructions doesn’t make them more specific or lend a power otherwise lacking. One effect they do have, however, is this: If you’re printing a document, they eat up more toner.
Let’s let Barzun bring it home: “A hundred temptations exist in print and on the air to divert us from writing simply in, on, at, now, then, and the rest of the short, precise words of time and place. Look out for such lures to vagueness and a pretentious style.”
Annoying Word of the Month: Indeed. There’s nothing immoral or even fattening about “indeed,” but its use should still be curbed. Its function is to emphasize a point the author is trying to make, though a well-crafted sentence shouldn’t need it. A good guide is not to write words you wouldn’t say in everyday speech, and I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say “indeed” in years, or at least I hope not. I’d no more write “indeed” than I would “forsooth,” which means just about the same thing, anyway. To me, “indeed” sounds no less stilted and archaic. Verily, milord, it does.