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Verbal Energy

Teed off about 'tee-ups' and 'performatives'

Academics have a term for those phrases we use to soften well-meant criticisms – or to position ourselves when we want to deliver a real zinger.

By Ruth Walker / February 11, 2014

Tiger Woods of the US watches his drive from the 8th tee during the first round of the 2014 Omega Dubai Desert Classic in Dubai January 30, 2014. A term for those phrases we use to soften well-meant criticisms is tee-ups, rooted in a golf metaphor: You set the ball up on a tee to give it a good whack.

Caren Firouz/Reuters

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As this column nears its 10th anniversary, the columnist still marvels at how many of the larger public care as deeply about the nuances of language as do those of us who get paid to fret about this stuff.

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But a lot of the caring, alas, has to do with being irked at the verbal tics of others. "On Point," the acclaimed call-in show broadcast from Boston's public radio station, WBUR, devoted a segment to the topic not long ago.

There was a broad range of material they could have treated, but the discussion revolved largely around a particular group of phrases the participants referred to as "performatives."

By this they meant the bits of fudge and waffle people use to soften the blow (or pretend to do so) when delivering home truths: "Maybe it's not my place to say this, but...."

(Dictionaries capture another sense of performative: a statement that functions as an action. You apologize by saying, "I apologize.")

Another term for them is tee-ups, rooted in a golf metaphor: You set the ball up on a tee to give it a good whack.

This kind of deceptive blather seems to be universal in the human condition. The particular phrases used, though, do vary across the scales of gender, geography, and the like. The South, with its collective self-image of politeness and gentility, has a particular vocabulary of these tee-ups.

Take "bless [someone's] heart." It can be used straightforwardly: "Bless his heart, he spent all afternoon shoveling out his elderly neighbor's driveway."

But there's also, "Bless his heart, he's been running that department six months now, and he just doesn't get it, does he?"

The one that takes the cake, though, is "to love someone to death." I remember the first time I heard that one. I had a nanosecond to wonder, what can that possibly mean? And then I heard the "but" that invariably follows this lovely phrase, and then the scathing criticism for which it serves as the launch vehicle.

Part of surviving childhood is absorbing and then finding the good sense to reject the misinformation one picks up from one's playmates. I first learned the word offense from a slightly older friend who tried to convey the idea that the phrase "no offense" would neutralize an otherwise hurtful comment: "No offense, but that's a pretty junky-looking bike you have there." No, boys and girls, that does not take away the sting of a gratuitous insult. Nor does saying, "Don't take this the wrong way, but...."

"I'm just saying." What do you do with that one? It is sometimes used constructively: "I don't mean he doesn't have a future with the firm. I'm just saying he hasn't gotten off to a very good start."

But what about this: "You sure you want to go to the prom with him? I'm just saying." It suggests withheld approval; it plants seeds of doubt without offering reason to doubt.

Psychologist James Pennebaker noted during the "On Point" discussion that performatives are used for either brutal honesty or deception. "I can't tell you how much I love you," for instance, is likely to be heard as "I love you so much I can't even say." But what it may literally, and actually, mean, he said, is "I can't tell you how much I love you because I don't even know if I like you."

We get into trouble when we complicate, don't we? I am reminded that one of our premier communications and human relations consultants once advised, "Let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil" (Matthew 5:37).

I'm just saying.

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