"avoid this ugly adjective" – The Times Style Guide

A journalist friend on Twitter, Oliver, asked my opinion of ongoing. He said he had been asked to ban it in a style guide, and that he didn't see why. I said I had nothing against it, and that banning it struck me as excessive and unhelpful. Although I sometimes find constructions like ongoing situation and ongoing issue vague or euphemistic, I see no point in prohibiting them outright.

Indeed, there are times when the adjective lends a helpful distinction. Take ongoing treatment in the context of medical care: it immediately conveys the prolonged or recurring nature of the care, as distinct from one-off treatment. You could say continuing treatment instead, but why be obliged to avoid a particular modifier if there's nothing inherently wrong with it (which there isn't)?

I think there are many occasions when ongoing can profitably be deleted, or perhaps replaced with current, continual, continuing, developing, prolonged, persistent, sustained, in progress, under way, or some such phrase – if only for variation. It is something of a journalistic crutch word, as Oliver described it. But this is no reason to remove it from the realm of possibility.

A day after this discussion, the Guardian style guide tweeted:

Can we agree to delete the word 'ongoing' whenever & wherever we see it? The writing will be improved & the world will be a happier place.

A bit harsh, I thought, and checked the Guardian website to see if the word appeared there often. It did: 20,765 times (more by the time you click). Including many headlines. I let @guardianstyle know about this, and they found it "shameful."

Their response was partly tongue-in-cheek, but there's really no shame in ongoing. A similar search on the Irish Times website yielded 22,187 hits. Even allowing for repeats, these figures strongly indicate that the word is not only well established but also useful. Browsing examples in newspapers and corpora, the usages seem to me to vary from perfectly reasonable to utterly (but harmlessly) superfluous.

A Google Ngram charts ongoing's recent rise to prominence. The trend happened slightly earlier in the US than in the UK (about which see the final quote below). Ernest Gowers, a close observer of the language, called it a vogue word back in the 1950s, and people have been griping about it ever since. Here are a few examples.

A Glasgow-based commenter on the BBC website asks,

When did the word "ongoing" become such common currency that it crops up in just about every news report? What happened to "continuing"?

Meet Peter, who is "unstoppably mid-rant"

and bearing the expression of a man cheesed to the back teeth with language; he is cocking a snook at the word "ongoing," regarding it as an Americanism. 'Why can't people say "continuing," as they should?' he asks loftily.

This editor says:

I have an ongoing argument with my father about the word "ongoing" which he refuses to recognize as a word.

A thread called "Uses of the Language that Hack Me Off" includes the following:

'Ongoing' Instead of 'Continuing'
The main reason I hate this is because usually the only people who use the word 'ongoing' are tossers of the highest order. But really, why use an awkword [sic] contraction when there's a perfectly good verb all ready to use?

So the problem's not so much the word as the fact that the peever thinks a lot of people are tossers? Colour me unsurprised. (And for the record: ongoing is not a contraction.) Don Watson includes ongoing in his Dictionary of Weasel Words, quoting former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan:

There are ongoing security challenges that we face and [Iraqi] Prime Minister Allawi is determined to address those ongoing security threats

When the word is used and repeated this way, we can see how it might serve to justify a certain attitude or course of action: unpopular measures might be made more palatable if threats are perceived to be ongoing and stressed as such. What's meant is that the threats are sustained or recurring, but calling them ongoing renders them both plausible and manageable. Clichés beget comfort.

Robert Burchfield, in the third edition of Fowler's usage dictionary, says the adjective is found in many acceptable collocations, but that ongoing situation is not among them: it "signals a person's linguistic impoverishment." Again, I think this is too severe – and very judgemental – but it's important to be aware that the phrase is capable of provoking considerable annoyance and distaste even in reasonable people.

The objections to ongoing may be especially pointed in British English. There's no mention of it in Jack Lynch's guide or in my 1998 edition of Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage; the Columbia Guide to Standard American English calls it "Standard," while noting that some commentators consider it overused. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage lists several who air their grievances about its overuse, and points out that

A new (or newly common) word that acquires great popularity is almost certain to be derided as a vogue word by those who watch over the language, especially when an older word, such as continuing, is available to be used in the same contexts. . . . And it may be, in addition, that the particularly strong feelings against ongoing among the British have something to do with its first having come into widespread use in the U.S.

But MWDEU sees "no compelling reason to avoid it," and I'm compelled to agree. I asked about the word on Twitter and was glad to see that almost everyone found the word unobjectionable – though some noted its overuse, especially in management jargon. I also learned that it's part of a fixed phrase in sociophonetics: ongoing sound change.

The idea of banning words and phrases crops up repeatedly. While certainly it's worthwhile to draw attention to clichés, vogue words and otherwise potentially troublesome expressions, I don't think banning them is a sensible solution. At the very least, it inculcates a proscriptive and censorial attitude, which is unconstructive. And what happens when a word you need is a word you've banned?

What do you think: Is there a problem with ongoing, or is people's problem with ongoing the ongoing problem?

Update: John E. McIntyre has written a follow-up to this post, explaining his distaste for ongoing (he calls it cablese, "the journalistic indulgence in words like downplay and upcoming") but finding that it has become relatively innocuous over the years. Mr. McIntyre adds some pertinent thoughts on the tension brought about by new words and vogue phrases, a tension that is "the dynamic by which the language evolves."