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15 Comments

  • John: Its popularity in some regions may be due in part to its elliptical construction. I read somewhere that this made it seem like something that might be stamped on a report.

  • Ah Stan, “fit for purpose” indeed – brings back memories. As a regular visitor to a well known travellers’ website, I was somewhat taken aback a couple of years ago when I looked for reviews of a particular hotel. One five star recommendation came with the faint-praise-damnation that it was “fit for purpose”. Booking last minute, I accepted the five star recommendation and can now testify that it was not “fit for purpose”, not my purpose at any rate – which was cleanliness, comfort and location! Thanks for bringing it all back to me!

  • Helen: Oh dear! Faint praise indeed. “Fit for purpose” doesn’t really square with a five-star rating, and your experience seems to have confirmed this. It sounds as though the review itself was unfit for purpose.

  • Very interesting post, Stan. I particularly liked your observation about the popularity of those synonym searches. Of course, as well as being cliches, the idioms you mentioned – such as “double-edged sword” – are examples of figurative language, and it doesn’t surprise me – given the deluge of figurative language that we are every moment immersed in – that people actually seek out alternatives that are, possibly, more literal, ‘plain’ or direct. That said, the problem with figural language is not with figural language per se (which, when imaginative and novel, is always an astonishing and gratfiying experience for the intellect) but rather, that many figural expressions lapse very quickly into cliche, thereby obscuring the force of meaning they were summoned to carry. In any event, a phrase like ‘fit for purpose’ is so functional – and so utterly bereft of figural potency – that the mild disdain which it triggers in those of us who nurse a love of language is easily understood.

  • Very astute observations, Padraic. You’re right that the problem in many cases is the speed with which some expressions wear out their welcome. They become overexposed and can attract fierce criticism. But even the most banal and overused phrases will stand the test of time if they retain a certain usefulness — phrases like stand the test of time, for example! As J. A. Spender wrote, “The hardest worked cliché is better than the phrase that fails.” Fit for purpose is a relative newcomer; it will be interesting to see how it fares.

  • thank you very much for your new post.I discussed the previous one about man’s words with my students and they really enjoyed it.We ended up tha we should not change the language as there were some attempts to chance the “man” part into a woman.Because ladies should be ladies and we have brave men who will always help ladies.no much feminism.I will give this new one to my students for discussion too.

  • You’re welcome, Alla. Thank you for the report from your lesson – it sounds as though you had a very interesting discussion with your students.

  • Hi, Is the reply to “how are you” correct if you say “good”?
    Also is “going to go” correct. I would really appreciate a reply, thanks. Regards Ted Hughes

  • I find “fit for purpose” to be an extremely useful and practical expression that solves a serious ambiguity problem compared to its closest relative, “good enough.” Especially in fields like engineering and design, we require a concept like “good enough” but need more precision than that. “Fit for purpose” implies an actual system for evaluation. If a product’s characteristics are not consistent with its design requirements, it is not fit for purpose. Otherwise, it is.

    I’m not sure that I see the similarity with clichés like “one size fits all,” “double-edged sword” and the like. One thing that such clichés have in common is that they take the form of a metaphor, and like other forms of poetic language give the communicator “artistic license” to use expressions less correctly than they would need to otherwise.

  • Thanks for your comment, Jim. Certainly the phrase has its uses (I rely on it myself sometimes), and it has slotted better into some niches than others. Where it is used loosely, its value will decline; in other domains, as you point out, it may retain a more specific and therefore useful sense.
    The similarity with “one size fits all” and co. is that they are clichés, or at least some consider them so. Many clichés are not metaphors, of course, unless we’re interpreting metaphor broadly.