"Ongoing" no longer nongoing

I direct your attention today to a detailed post by Stan Carey on the much-maligned, and sometimes deservedly so, word ongoing. Banning it, as some style guides do, strikes him as “excessive and unhelpful.”

My distaste for the word goes so far back in my career that I no longer recall the origin, whether book, style guide, teacher, or editor. I associate it with cablese, the journalistic indulgence in words like downplay and upcoming. And in fact, it is often a superfluous word. Police officers and police reporters regularly talk about ongoing investigations, though one could reasonably conclude that investigation alone, if not coupled with stalled or suspended, indicates a continuing action.

It is, as one of Mr. Carey’s correspondents remarks, a journalistic “crutch word.” After seeing the Guardian’s distaste for the word, Mr. Carey examined the Guardian website and found more than 20,000 occurrences of the word. (Who will guard the Guardian’s guardians?)

But as one of many synonyms for continuing, it has become relatively innocuous since its arrival about 130 years ago. After a slow start, it came into prominent use in the 1950s, which is probably when resistance to it as a vogue usage it set in. In Britain, where the resistance has been firmer, it has been scorned as an Americanism.

New words, or old words in new senses, get picked up by the early adopters. More conservative types shun, resist, hold off, or simply bide their time. Many new words and vogue usages fade away over time, and the late adopters learn to accept the ones that find a settled place in the language. This is a crucial point about usage: The tension between the early adopters’ enthusiasm and the late adopters’ resistance is the dynamic by which the language evolves. Each party serves a function: The former provide a testing ground; the latter, having shot the wounded, embrace the survivors.

Ongoing has endured for more than half a century. Overusing it is silly, as is using it where it is not needed or where some other word is more precise. But shunning it has also come to look a little silly. And dated.



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