Stop saying ‘to name but two’. I bet you can only name two

Popular orange vegetables
This was a surprisingly hard post to illustrate, so here are some carrots. It’s vaguely relevant

I was reading a very interesting article about football in The Guardian the other day. Don’t worry, this isn’t an article about football. But it was worth reading; it’s an interesting piece of meta-journalism, talking about why “transfer rumours” are so often empty. “Do ICI send an email to another biochemicals company telling them their new discoveries in drugs?”, Sir Alex Ferguson asks, to explain why managers and clubs lie constantly to journalists about their plans in the transfer market. It’s worth a read if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

But my eye was caught about halfway through by one of those phrases that get on my nerves. This one was: “David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastián Verón, to name just three”.

“To name just three.” A quick [ “to name but”] Google search of our site finds about 30,000 results; the same on The Guardian’s website finds almost 60,000. There are another 24,000 on the two sites for “to name just”. No doubt lots of them are duplicates or from comments or similar, but nonetheless, it’s clearly a common trope. I have probably used it myself at some stage.

The implication of “to name but X”, of course, is that there are thousands of other examples whom the author could name, were it not for constraints of space and/or time. If only! If only, dear reader, I had the spare hours, or the New Yorkerish word limit, to list the billions of examples – endless billions! A deep and boundless ocean of examples; serried ranks of them, each more shocking than the last, stretching to infinity, as far as the eye can see! Alas, I cannot. But you can trust me, reader: there are more examples of players-about-whose-transfer-status-Sir-Alex-Ferguson-has-been-less-than-honest than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of all the oceans in all the worlds of the universe.

No doubt the author (Daniel Taylor in this case; a very good and honest football writer, I should add) does have more examples (although Taylor only mentions one, Cristiano Ronaldo). But it’s that “just” (or “but”) in there. It’s not a simple “for instance”, it’s a hinting-at-vast-hinterlands. But nine times out of 10, I’m willing to bet, the “but three” examples are in fact all but one of the examples the author can think of.

A colleague admits to getting similarly aggravated by “to pick an example at random”. No, you didn’t. You picked an example very carefully, to best support your point. Then you claimed it was at random, in order to make it seem as though you’re all insouciant and to hint, once again, that there are thousands of possible examples you could have chosen.

There’s a journalistic technique known as “elegant variation”, which involves never referring to a particular thing twice in the same way, always finding a different synonym: so first “Pope Benedict XVI”, second “His Holiness”, third “the Pontiff”. The technique is also known as POV, short for “popular orange vegetable“, an elegant variation on “carrot”. This is a bit like that – people are bored of saying “for instance” and “for example”, so they try to mix things up a little. But it’s more dishonest than that. It’s also a subtle way of exaggerating the point that you’re making. Can we all stop doing it, please?

• Note: if you don’t care at all about this stuff, that’s fine – this is a niche topic, I admit. But if you don’t care about it at all, but have nonetheless read all the way to the bottom and then left a comment explaining that you don’t care about it at all, I suggest that you go away and have a serious think about where your life is going.


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