• Richard Farr

Absolutely incredibly modified


Captain Tom Moore, NHS fundraising colossus, has been promoted to Colonel on his 100th birthday. The defence secretary, Ben Wallace, chose the occasion to illustrate a common problem with the way most of us use the language:

Captain Tom is simply inspirational and I am absolutely delighted the army has honoured him in such a fitting manner. He not only embodies the spirit of our incredible veteran community, but the resolve of this nation.

We're so used to this larded, cheer-leadering style - especially but not only from politicians - that it takes a moment to stop and be grateful that Wallace didn't say "simply amazing resolve of this truly amazingly amazing nation." But notice how much more powerful the observation could have been with the existing verbal fat cut away:

Captain Tom is inspirational. I am delighted the army has honoured him in such a fitting manner. He not only embodies the spirit of our veteran community, but the resolve of this nation.

In British English at least, incredible / incredibly has become the tic of the times. This isn't one of the worst uses - not as annoying as the common "I am incredibly pleased" formula, which Wallace avoided. But he doesn't entirely avoid what's annoying there - the implicit assumption that we should be amazed, not so much at the event in question, but at the speaker's degree of amazement. "I am delighted," he says - but we are not interested in a report on his feelings, and this is a case in which the much-maligned passive should ride to the rescue:

Captain Tom is inspirational. It is delightful that the army has honoured him in such a fitting manner.

Or - better still, I think :

Captain Tom is inspirational. It is fitting that the army has honoured him in this way.

"It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this." Ah yes, a light but fitting echo of a time when America's President had a mind and a soul.


What else? I'm not in love with the pompous sonority of "not only ... but." A whiff of rhetorical cliche there. Consider instead:

He embodies the spirit of our veteran community and the resolve of this nation.

I want to say that "is an inspiration" is better than "is inspirational," but I can't identify why so will leave it alone. Now we have:

Captain Tom is inspirational. It is fitting that the army has honoured him in this way. He embodies the spirit of our veteran community and the resolve of this nation.

This is more measured. It lacks self-advertisement and the shine of sprayed-on glee. It is more genuinely respectful.


Which raises another point. "Captain Tom" - really? Perhaps he likes the familiarity of the nickname; if so, wonderful. Or it may have been foisted on him as a silly and irrelevant reference, conscious or not, to Major Tom in the song; if so, not so great. But to my ear it carries a strong shrill overtone of something else I've heard no one mention - grossly ageist condescension. Doesn't he deserve "Captain Moore"? Has age and a perception that he is "cute" deprived him of that dignity?


If this seems an excessively critical response to a brief spoken statement, well it is - but language is always worth improving. Perhaps I should mention that in the latter stages of producing my last book the copy-editor suggested diplomatically that I re-consider my use(s) of the modifier "very." To my astonishment and shame, there were well over 100 of them, scattered through the manuscript like mouse shit in a poorly-cleaned kitchen; on the other hand, sweeping them away was pure delight.