You Know That Thing?

“Have you seen that thing?”

“What thing?”

“That thing that does that thing it does.”

“Oh, that thing. No, sorry.”


thing; noun; from Old English thing, assembly; akin to Old High German ding, thing, assembly; Gothic theihs, time.


I’m not known for brevity. Whether speaking or writing I tend to use a lot of words. Sometimes I even use more words than necessary. Of course, I don’t think they are unnecessary words, but from time to time I feel my listeners or readers probably do. I’m a bit of a throwback. People used to speak, and write, using far more words than they do now. In our hurried times staccato bursts of vernacular whipped with slang seem the rule, and any spoken or written statement longer than five or six words feels burdensome.

The exceptions, of course, are lawyers and legal documents, and by inclusion legislators and bills. They grow wordier in inverse proportion to our terseness, and it’s possible that’s no coincidence. Lawyers know that language is a minefield of ambiguity. They add words in order to reinforce the meaning of the text and anticipate ways in which future readers will attempt to take from it meanings that are at odds with the original intent of the writers. Pursue this goal long enough and what emerges makes for less-than-entertaining reading.

It is, however, precise. I learned to read contracts and legal language long ago, and it has served me well in a number of cases worth real money. I even like writing them, much to the consternation of barristers I have worked with. There is something satisfying about the weighty, measured cadence of legal language thumping onto a page as you write. The words matter in the most practical and immediate sense. They are at the same time statements of currently agreed fact and potential weapons in future disagreements.

Terse language, on the other hand, is often imprecise language. It doesn’t have to be. “Pick up that hammer” is a pretty precise statement. “Grab that” is not, but when accompanied by a nod or hand gesture it can be enough. One sure-fire way to boil the precision out of any statement is to add the word “thing.” It may well be the most useless word in any language. At the very least it’s one of the most irritating. One definition for the word “thing” is: a separate and distinct quality, fact, idea, or usually entity. “Thing” can mean any damned thing, and as a result actually means nothing.

I guess the idea worked well for all those Carpi, Allamani, Tervingi, and Taifali running around central Europe 1500 years ago. They had probably just figured out that there were things in the world, and it is kind of heart-warming to imagine them pointing to a walnut in the Hyrcinian Forest and stating “Ding!” with a confident and knowing air. Yes, Fritigern, that’s a thing you have there. Once you get past that basic philosophical understanding of corporeal entities and their existential selfness the word “thing” is just a hair more useful than the word “noun.”

So while I hesitate to suggest that people go back to writing and speaking in complete sentences that offer fully-developed thoughts,  I do propose that we banish the word “thing” from all polite usage written and spoken. I trust you will get right on that. Meanwhile I have this ding I have to do.

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