‘To Be Honest’ … Well, What Else Would We Be?

When some listeners hear the phrase “to be honest,” they ask this question:

“Does that mean you don’t usually tell the truth?”

We get emails about that phrase, which has been heard on the air at least 240 times in the past year. Most of the time it’s been said by guests, but we’ve used it as well. Along with the snarky question, listeners point out that of the many mostly meaningless ways there are of moving conversations along, it is can be among the least meaningful. For example, here’s Larry Wilmore on Fresh Air talking about what it was like to roast the media during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner: “It was really all in fun, to be honest with you.” What did “to be honest with you” add?

If the words aren’t meaningless, they may give the exact wrong impression. As The Wall Street Journal has reported, the phrase is among the verbal tee-ups that may “signal insincerity.”

Or, there’s the fact that “to be honest” can be heard as an adverbial disjunct that “conveys the speaker’s or writer’s comment on its content, truth or manner” (Merriam-Webster). A “to be honest” can make it sound like you’re opining.

If you want to signal that what you’re about to say is important or you want to underscore that you’re being candid, just say that. “To be clear” might be what you really want to say.


(“Memmos;” Aug. 31, 2016)

August 31, 2016

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