I hope this isn’t a complete waste of time

Posted by on October 06, 2011

A British newspaper recently featured one of those polls to find out what its readers thought about a new policy idea. The question was:

“Are compulsory learning tests for two-year-olds a complete waste of public money?”

A fair question – or was it? If the question had been ‘Are compulsory learning tests … a waste of public money?’, it would have been neutral. But for me, the addition of the word complete betrays the questioner’s own opinion. Why? The answer relates to ideas about language proposed by Michael Hoey (linguistics professor, author, and chief advisor to Macmillan Dictionaries) in his book on ‘Lexical Priming’. As Prof. Hoey’s website explains,

Every word is primed for use in discourse as a result of the cumulative effects of an individual’s encounters with the word.

What this implies in the case of complete is that, if we have regularly seen or heard the word used in negative contexts, this will colour our interpretation of it when we come across it again – we will be ‘primed’ to see it in a negative light. For the newspaper’s readers (fluent speakers of English) the addition of complete gives a strong hint regarding the questioner’s attitude.

I looked at some corpus data to see whether my hunch was valid. Complete, of course, has many straightforward uses where the speaker’s attitude isn’t relevant – meanings which are without ‘affect’. There is the sense that something includes all the necessary parts, with nothing left out (as in ‘the complete works of Shakespeare’, ‘give the engine a complete overhaul’), and the idea that a task has been finished (‘the project is almost complete’). But in its most common use (the first sense shown in the Macmillan Dictionary) complete is employed not so much to express a meaning as to add emphasis to the noun it modifies. So we can say things like ‘July was sunny, but August was the complete opposite’ or ‘it was a complete surprise’ or ‘I’m a complete beginner’. There are also plenty of cases where complete modifies ‘positive’ words like confidence or satisfaction.

But the data shows a marked preference for words describing annoying or badly-managed situations (failure, disaster, chaos, shambles, disarray) or expressing strong disagreement (nonsense, crap, rubbish). And when applied to people, complete tends to collocate with words like bastard, idiot, and moron. The common thread is the speaker’s attitude, which often looks like a combination of contempt and ridicule. When complete teams up with utter, the negative tendency is even stronger, and expressions like ‘complete and utter bollocks’ are common.

Lexical Priming theory predicts that these negative sentiments carry across to uses like ‘a complete waste of money’ (or of time, or space), so – going back to the poll mentioned earlier – the way the question is framed tells us which answer the questioner thinks we should give.

The way your choice of words and phrases can convey (or at least imply) your attitude to something is all part of pragmatics, which we’ve occasionally looked at before in the blog. But it’s an area which dictionaries haven’t always done enough to illuminate, so we’ll come back to it in the next few weeks.

Comments (5)
  • This use of complete seems synonymous with total, and directly interchangeable with it in most instances. I haven’t looked into it, but I wonder if one prompted the other.

    Posted by Stan on 6th October, 2011
  • Thanks Stan. I’m planning to look into ‘total’ at some point. I suspect it’s interchangeable in many cases but maybe not all. If anything, ‘total’ has an even more negative feel, so too its adverb. The combination ‘totally and utterly’ was Margaret Thatcher’s emphasiser of choice, in expressions like ‘totally and utterly outrageous’. Very hyperbolic!

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 6th October, 2011
  • Totally, utterly, and completely hyperbolic!

    Posted by Stan on 6th October, 2011
  • You could answer: No. It’s not a complete waste of money. But it’s an almost complete waste of money. One rule of discourse is that the meaning of a statement is defined by the most restrictive word in it. The opposite of waste is, in this case, something like useful, but the opposite of complete waste is incomplete waste. So the formulation indicates that the writer is expecting everybody to agree.

    Posted by Anders Lotsson on 12th October, 2011
  • Good point, Anders. In other words, the most positive response available would be ‘no, not a *complete* waste (but a partial one, nonetheless)’. I think, too, that the use of ‘public’ here carries its own implicature, and corpus data shows many cases of ‘waste of public money’ or ‘waste of taxpayers’ money’ – which seems to imply: it’s YOUR money we’re talking about here’.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 12th October, 2011
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