Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Ongoing Fuss Over "Ongoing"

"avoid this ugly adjective" – The Times Style Guide

A journalist friend on Twitter, Oliver, asked my opinion of ongoing. He said he had been asked to ban it in a style guide, and that he didn't see why. I said I had nothing against it, and that banning it struck me as excessive and unhelpful. Although I sometimes find constructions like ongoing situation and ongoing issue vague or euphemistic, I see no point in prohibiting them outright.

Indeed, there are times when the adjective lends a helpful distinction. Take ongoing treatment in the context of medical care: it immediately conveys the prolonged or recurring nature of the care, as distinct from one-off treatment. You could say continuing treatment instead, but why be obliged to avoid a particular modifier if there's nothing inherently wrong with it (which there isn't)?

I think there are many occasions when ongoing can profitably be deleted, or perhaps replaced with current, continual, continuing, developing, prolonged, persistent, sustained, in progress, under way, or some such phrase – if only for variation. It is something of a journalistic crutch word, as Oliver described it. But this is no reason to remove it from the realm of possibility.

A day after this discussion, the Guardian style guide tweeted:

Can we agree to delete the word 'ongoing' whenever & wherever we see it? The writing will be improved & the world will be a happier place.

A bit harsh, I thought, and checked the Guardian website to see if the word appeared there often. It did: 20,765 times (more by the time you click). Including many headlines. I let @guardianstyle know about this, and they found it "shameful."

Their response was partly tongue-in-cheek, but there's really no shame in ongoing. A similar search on the Irish Times website yielded 22,187 hits. Even allowing for repeats, these figures strongly indicate that the word is not only well established but also useful. Browsing examples in newspapers and corpora, the usages seem to me to vary from perfectly reasonable to utterly (but harmlessly) superfluous.

A Google Ngram charts ongoing's recent rise to prominence. The trend happened slightly earlier in the US than in the UK (about which see the final quote below). Ernest Gowers, a close observer of the language, called it a vogue word back in the 1950s, and people have been griping about it ever since. Here are a few examples.

A Glasgow-based commenter on the BBC website asks,

When did the word "ongoing" become such common currency that it crops up in just about every news report? What happened to "continuing"?

Meet Peter, who is "unstoppably mid-rant"

and bearing the expression of a man cheesed to the back teeth with language; he is cocking a snook at the word "ongoing," regarding it as an Americanism. 'Why can't people say "continuing," as they should?' he asks loftily.

This editor says:

I have an ongoing argument with my father about the word "ongoing" which he refuses to recognize as a word.

A thread called "Uses of the Language that Hack Me Off" includes the following:

'Ongoing' Instead of 'Continuing'
The main reason I hate this is because usually the only people who use the word 'ongoing' are tossers of the highest order. But really, why use an awkword [sic] contraction when there's a perfectly good verb all ready to use?

So the problem's not so much the word as the fact that the peever thinks a lot of people are tossers? Colour me unsurprised. (And for the record: ongoing is not a contraction.) Don Watson includes ongoing in his Dictionary of Weasel Words, quoting former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan:

There are ongoing security challenges that we face and [Iraqi] Prime Minister Allawi is determined to address those ongoing security threats

When the word is used and repeated this way, we can see how it might serve to justify a certain attitude or course of action: unpopular measures might be made more palatable if threats are perceived to be ongoing and stressed as such. What's meant is that the threats are sustained or recurring, but calling them ongoing renders them both plausible and manageable. Clichés beget comfort.

Robert Burchfield, in the third edition of Fowler's usage dictionary, says the adjective is found in many acceptable collocations, but that ongoing situation is not among them: it "signals a person's linguistic impoverishment." Again, I think this is too severe – and very judgemental – but it's important to be aware that the phrase is capable of provoking considerable annoyance and distaste even in reasonable people.

The objections to ongoing may be especially pointed in British English. There's no mention of it in Jack Lynch's guide or in my 1998 edition of Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage; the Columbia Guide to Standard American English calls it "Standard," while noting that some commentators consider it overused. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage lists several who air their grievances about its overuse, and points out that

A new (or newly common) word that acquires great popularity is almost certain to be derided as a vogue word by those who watch over the language, especially when an older word, such as continuing, is available to be used in the same contexts. . . . And it may be, in addition, that the particularly strong feelings against ongoing among the British have something to do with its first having come into widespread use in the U.S.

But MWDEU sees "no compelling reason to avoid it," and I'm compelled to agree. I asked about the word on Twitter and was glad to see that almost everyone found the word unobjectionable – though some noted its overuse, especially in management jargon. I also learned that it's part of a fixed phrase in sociophonetics: ongoing sound change.

The idea of banning words and phrases crops up repeatedly. While certainly it's worthwhile to draw attention to clichés, vogue words and otherwise potentially troublesome expressions, I don't think banning them is a sensible solution. At the very least, it inculcates a proscriptive and censorial attitude, which is unconstructive. And what happens when a word you need is a word you've banned?

What do you think: Is there a problem with ongoing, or is people's problem with ongoing the ongoing problem?

Update: John E. McIntyre has written a follow-up to this post, explaining his distaste for ongoing (he calls it cablese, "the journalistic indulgence in words like downplay and upcoming") but finding that it has become relatively innocuous over the years. Mr. McIntyre adds some pertinent thoughts on the tension brought about by new words and vogue phrases, a tension that is "the dynamic by which the language evolves."

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Count.

Stan Carey is a scientist turned freelance editor from the west of Ireland. He shares his fascination with language, words and books on his blog, Sentence first, and on Twitter. Stan has a TEFL qualification, a history of polyglottism, and a lifelong love of stories and poetry. He writes articles about the English language for Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to read more articles by Stan Carey.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Tuesday August 2nd 2011, 10:40 AM
Comment by: Wesley S.
As a weekly newspaper editor for years, I confess to using the word "ongoing" occasionally. I tried not to overuse it, but it did seem to make the point better than "continuing" or "recurring" in certain—though not ongoing—situations. I see no reason to ban it, but strive instead to use it sparingly and effectively.
Tuesday August 2nd 2011, 11:23 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
It's certainly valid for a style guide to suggest terms that can be problematic to use correctly (our style guide suggests that we simply stay away from "comprise," for example). But to a) simply ban a word b) on the subjective basis of it being "ugly" seems ... unprofessional to me. Not to mention lazy.
Tuesday August 2nd 2011, 12:36 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
For me, there is nothing wrong with the "ongoing" word in our present day life. To me it is a sweet word.I bet there are many similar minded people around me..
One way to delete the word is not to use the word by the prominent writers in their column/article.
The writer's arguments are not significant enough to delete the word at this stage. So long live Ongoing.
See you next line/column/book/day.
Wednesday August 3rd 2011, 5:26 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Graeme: It's very similar to continuing – too similar for some critics – but maybe the words will diverge usefully. I wouldn't assume anything about the character of people using it.

Wesley: Striving to use it sparingly and effectively strikes me as a very sound approach. I see nothing whatsoever wrong with using it occasionally. It is however in the interests of writers and editors to be aware of its potential to annoy, especially when used frequently or superfluously.

Mike: Yes, perceived ugliness is not a sound basis for dismissing a word, whatever about avoiding it in one's own speech. Many an "ugly" word has become popular, even indispensable, in the language. As for comprise, it's guaranteed to bother some people regardless of how it's used!

begum: I think you're right: many people find it a sweet word, certainly a useful one. The NGram suggests that its success will be... ongoing.
Tuesday August 30th 2011, 9:33 AM
Comment by: william H.
so much going on about ongoing. what would shakespeare do?
Tuesday August 30th 2011, 12:17 PM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Good question, William. He might use it, play with it, pun on it or ignore it, depending on what served the moment best.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.