July 26, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: to be honest & consists of/consists in

Posted in consists of or consists in, to be honest at 6:12 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: To be honest

A reader writes:

Can you comment on the seemingly endless use of the phrase “to be honest ….”

I am guilty of using it when not needed, hear others using it a lot, and today, read it in a list serve …. Is there some “honest” truth to it’s origin? I would like to send it back to where it came from before I convince everyone I’m dishonest.

I think of ‘To be honest’ as kind of a verbal tic along the lines of ‘like,’ ‘you know,’ ‘frankly,’ and ‘anyway.’ It is a conversational filler, just taking up space (time) while we are figuring out what to say next. I don’t see any great meaning in the phrase, and I don’t think it has anything to do with overall honesty or dishonesty.

From what I have read, some dislike the phrase because it implies that the speaker has been dishonest at other times. Some believe that it heralds bad news. Frankly (sorry, I couldn’t resist), I think both groups are wrong. I don’t think it means anything; it’s just a verbal hiccup. And while I agree that it is trite and overused, I think it is a big mistake to infer anything from its use. I think the bottom line, here, is that we should not reflexively say ‘to be honest,’  although since I have recently seen ‘tbh’ used in text messages, I don’t think that will happen anytime soon. But more importantly, lighten up, and don’t find meanings where no meanings exist.

Tip 2: Consists of or consists in

A reader writes:

Have you ever written about the difference between “consist of” and “consist in”?

We actually have addressed this back in 2009 (https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/consists-of-or-consists-in/), but I am willing to do it again because I have a bit of a different take on it, now. Back then, I said I had not heard of ‘consists in’ but now that I know it, I like it and will use it. Well, the truth is that (or should I say, ‘to be perfectly honest’?) I haven’t used it or even given it a single thought. Let me briefly explain the distinction, and then, I am going to tell you to ignore it. ‘Consists of’ means ‘is composed of.’

The moons consists of blue cheese (not really, but that’s what they say).

The examination consists of all of the topics we’ve talked about in class.

‘Consists in’ means ‘has as its essence.’

Her popularity consists in her friendly, gentle nature.

The professor’s style consists in her ability to ask sharp questions without intimidating the students.

Garner says that “American writers often ignore the distinction.” Yeah, I’ll buy that. In the examples above, I  would not substitute ‘consist of’ for ‘consist in’; I would use another word completely:

Her popularity stems from her friendly, gentle nature.

The professor’s style is based on her ability to ask sharp questions without intimidating the students.

or some such thing.

Garner also says that “Sad to say, it may sound creaky to most readers.” Yeah, gotta go along with that, too. While conceptually, I liked ‘consists in,’ it just never made it into my day-to-day vocabulary, and most likely, it never will.

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