I hate to tell you

Phrases that announces ‘I’m lying‘

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but there’s a whole range of phrases that aren’t doing the jobs you think they’re doing.

In fact, “I hate to be the one to tell you this” (like its cousin, “I hate to say it”) is one of them. Think back: How many times have you seen barely suppressed glee in someone who — ostensibly — couldn’t be more reluctant to be the bearer of bad news? A lack of respect from someone who starts off “With all due respect”? A stunning dearth of comprehension from someone who prefaces their cluelessness with “I hear what you’re saying”? And has “I’m not a racist, but…” ever introduced an unbiased statement?

These contrary-to-fact phrases have been dubbed (by the Twitter user GrammarHulk and others) “but-heads,” because they’re at the head of the sentence, and usually followed by but. They’ve also been dubbed “false fronts,” “wishwashers,” and, less cutely, “lying qualifiers.”

The point of a but-head is to preemptively deny a charge that has yet to be made, with a kind of “best offense is a good defense” strategy. This technique has a distinguished relative in classical rhetoric: the device of procatalepsis, in which the speaker brings up and immediately refutes the anticipated objections of his or her hearer. When someone says “I’m not trying to hurt your feelings, but…” they are maneuvering to keep you from saying “I don’t believe you — you’re just trying to hurt my feelings.”

Once you start looking for these but-heads, you see them everywhere, and you see how much they reveal about the speaker. When someone says “It’s not about the money, but…”, it’s almost always about the money. If you hear “It really doesn’t matter to me, but…”, odds are it does matter, and quite a bit. Someone who begins a sentence with “Confidentially” is nearly always betraying a confidence; someone who starts out “Frankly,” or “Honestly,” “To be (completely) honest with you,” or “Let me give it to you straight” brings to mind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quip: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

“No offense, but…” and “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…” are both warning flags, guaranteed to precede statements that are offensive, insulting, or both. “I don’t mean to be rude, but…” invariably signals the advent of breathtaking, blatant, write-in-to-Miss-Manners-style rudeness. (And when someone starts out by saying “Promise me you won’t get mad, but…” you might as well go ahead and start getting mad.)

Sometimes the but-heads are intended more apologetically than defensively, and serve as a helpful advance warning, leaving you free to reply in kind. Once someone has said “It’s (really) none of my business, but…” it’s entirely permissible (if slightly rude) to reply “You’re right, it is none of your business.” It’s also reasonable to reply “Well, then, don’t!” to someone who says “I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable, but…”

Related to the but-head but coming at the end, rather than the beginning, of problematic statements are more aggressive disclaimers, such as “Nothing personal!” “Lighten up!” “Can’t you take a joke?” or “Just kidding,” none of which ever really seem to work to lighten the mood. There’s also the phrase meant to lessen the sting of something which could be perceived as criticism: “but not in a bad way.” (As in “It had a bit of a fishy taste…but, uh, not in a bad way.”)

Perhaps the ultimate but-head is the “I’m not saying” prefix, which always seems to mean “I’m pretending I’m not saying X, but really, I am.” This is a cousin to “I’m just being honest,” in which the crucially disingenuous word is “just” — people who use this phrase rarely feel the need to be “honest” about pleasant or complimentary things.

So if these words are so clearly dishonest that they’re essentially signals of dishonesty, what’s the motivation for hiding behind them? Why do people — why do nearly all of us — fall back on them from time to time?

It would be nice if we all stood behind our words instead of erecting walls of disclaimers in front of them. But it’s also human to want to mitigate people’s reactions when we say something negative. The phrases, in this sense, operate as almost a fingers-crossed superstitious protection: “If I say ‘no offense,’ maybe he won’t punch me!”

But our real need for these phrases may be rooted in something closer to self-delusion. We’d all like to believe we aren’t being spiteful, nosy, or less than forthcoming. To proclaim our innocence in this way is to assert that we are, indeed, innocent. Please don’t take this the wrong way — and really, I hate to say it — but the true audience for the but-head may not be our listeners, but ourselves.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com.

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/11/14/i_hate_to_tell_you/