It's Time to Get Judgy About Incompetency

Language should foster communication. Unfortunately, it often is used to prevent communication by obscuring truth.


Politics is fleeting, but life's great mysteries are eternal. Let us contemplate a few.

For starters: Why do we "write down" a phone number but "write someone up" for an infraction? When completing a task, why do we say "finish it up" instead of "finish it down"?

It doesn't make sense, if you stop and think about it. Consider the following example:

"Kevin, do you have the numbers for the quarterly report yet?"

"Sure, Phil. Lemme just finish up this last spreadsheet."

This falls naturally upon the ear because we are used to hearing it. But wouldn't the following sound a lot better?

"Kevin, do you have the numbers for the quarterly report yet?"

"Go suck an egg, Phil. Do your own math for a change, you lazy slug."

Yes, that would indeed sound a lot better. But since that would get Kevin fired faster than you can say "involuntary separation from employer," he probably shouldn't say it. He could, however, say "finish down this last spreadsheet," and take passive-aggressive pleasure from the puzzled look on Phil's face, with no real harm done.

Here's another, same category: If we sit down in a chair, then why do we then sit up straight? And why do we ride out a storm instead of riding it in? What's up with that? For that matter, why do we say "What's up with that?" to express skepticism but "I'm down with that" to express assent? Since up is positive and down is negative, shouldn't it be the other way around?

Also, why do some people pronounce "height" as though it had a third h on the end? When they step on the scale, do they say they have gained weighth?

All of those are minor matters, however, compared with the most important question of the day—if not our lifetime: When did "as such" become an acceptable replacement for "therefore"?

Here's a recent example from LifeNews.com, an anti-abortion website: "The data collection starts in 1973. As such, it is impossible to statistically determine whether state abortion bans reduced the amount of legal protection granted to pregnant women."

Well, you can see immediately what's wrong there: a split infinitive. Beyond that, however, is the glaring problem that "as such" should refer to something. Grammarphobia, another website, explains the issue clearly: "A sentence shouldn't include the phrase 'as such' unless there's an antecedent that answers the question 'as what?'?"

The LifeNews piece, then, should read something like this: "The data collection starts in 1973. Also, Kevin from Accounting is a total jerk. As such, he has no people skills."

See? Much better.

Here's another example that landed in the inbox back in October: "This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. As such, I thought the attached op-ed might be timely." The person who wrote that pitch is a former state Cabinet official. As such, he ought to use "therefore," wouldn't you say?

After all, language should foster communication. Unfortunately, it often is used to prevent communication by obscuring truth. Here's an example flagged by Derek Thompson, a sharp-eyed editor at The Atlantic, from a business news release in December:

"Citigroup today announced a series of repositioning actions that will further reduce expenses and improve efficiency across the company while maintaining Citi's unique capabilities to serve clients, especially in the emerging markets. These actions will result in increased business efficiency, streamlined operations and an optimized consumer footprint across geographies."

Thompson helpfully translates that into plain English: "Citigroup today announced [layoffs]. These actions will [save money]."

This brings up (or perhaps down) a final point, courtesy of Virginia lawmakers, who are debating when teachers may be involuntarily separated from employment through repositioning actions. The Code of Virginia states that a teacher "may be dismissed or placed on probation for incompetency." Legislation before the General Assembly would stipulate that "for the purposes of this article, 'incompetency' may be construed to include … one or more unsatisfactory performance evaluations."

Question: "incompetency"? What's wrong with "incompetence"? Incompetence is a perfectly good—a perfectly cromulent!—word. And while "incompetency" embiggens the language, it does so to no good end. It does not provide a new word where one was needed, or convey a nuance otherwise left unutterable. All it does is look—and here one has to resort to the lexicographer's argot, so pardon the technical mumbo-jumbo—stupid. What's next: "incompetencyness"?

When it comes to the educatationary realm, the list of those eligible for getting canned for incompetency probably should start with anyone who uses that word.

Unless that sounds too judgy. If so, we'll just have to think up something else. Or, you know, down.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.