The Verbal Imperative

Television is a vast wasteland, a sinkhole for time and creativity.  I rely largely on radio for news and information that isn’t available in paper or online.  There has been a marked increase in what seems to be to be a bad trend in the interviews that I listen to on NPR or on Gwen Ifill’s Washington Week, the only TV program I watch with any regularity.  I can only assume it is happening on other programs, particularly those that label themselves in ways like Squawk Box.

The trend is to start a sentence with an imperative:  Look.  Listen.

It sounds rude.  It might be a rhetorical device to catch the listener’s attention.  Since it is often used at the start of an answer to a question, though, the listener can hardly be expected to have already lost interest.  It never contributes to what the speaker then says.  It is merely a filler word.

I have heard a number of less experienced speakers start their responses with the universal So … that makes it sound as though their first response was misunderstood, and now they are trying again.  In fact, this is their first response but they habitually start all sentences with the word So.

As the Wikipedia entry on imperatives notes, there are politeness norms when having a conversation.  I am not suggesting that people should be falling all over themselves to speak in a fussy, archaic way.  But drop the imperative unless it is really part of what you are trying to communicate.  Telling me (or, heaven forbid, Gwen!) to Look, as though we weren’t already focused on the response – we turned on the TV or radio or downloaded the podcast; we have opted in and are not just people who are wandering, lost, on a city street – is a nasty habit to form.

As with most manners, things like this become (bad) habits merely through continuing to do them.  If you are trying to grab attention from your interviewer or your conversation partner, perhaps that need reflects the type of conversation you are having.  In most cases, it is unnecessary and off-putting.

It has made me more aware of how I start my own answers in conversations, and makes me wonder if people who do use the imperative to start their responses are in fact poorer listeners who need to stick a stake through their part of the conversation rather than using a pause or some other method to gain attention.

Go.  And if you are one of those people, stop being such a bossy conversationalist.