No Offense, But Verbal Tee-Ups Aren't Actually Polite

I just want you to know that this blog post will be about verbal tee-ups, the preface-y phrases—“I’d like to say,” “To be perfectly honest,” “No offense, but,” “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but”—that either drive you crazy or allow you to get away with conversational murder. In the Wall Street Journal on Monday, Elizabeth Bernstein reviewed the uses and abuses of these contrivances: They often soften what’s coming, obscure meaning and, at times, “signal that bad news or … dishonesty” is on the horizon.

For example, you can create ambiguity by introducing your utterance with “This is just to say … ,” which draws attention to the speech act and away from whether what follows is true. (Only William Carlos Williams knows whether that hedge got him off the hook for eating the plums in the icebox.) Or you can distance yourself from your own observation by prefacing it with “Please understand … ” (“Please understand that the plums are gone.”) You can even—and this seems rude—try to explicitly manage someone’s reaction to your words: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but ... ” or “Don’t get mad, but ... ” or “OK, don’t freak out, but … ” (but there are NO MORE PLUMS, which is to say, I ATE THEM ALL).

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