Proofreading Service - Pain in the English
Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

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Proofreading Service - Pain in the English
Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

Your Pain Is Our Pleasure

24-Hour Proofreading Service—We proofread your Google Docs or Microsoft Word files. We hate grammatical errors with a passion. Learn More

Meaningless Use of “key”

“William and Kate had earlier attended a civic reception hosted by Perth and Kinross provost Liz Grant, where they were gifted an ancient map of Strathearn.” 

So we are told by the internet news service in Britain today. What is wrong with ‘they were given as a gift’ ... or ‘they were presented with the gift of ...’? “They were gifted [something]...” sounds to me about as attractive an expression as the noise of fingernails scraped down an old-fashioned blackboard. Am I too sensitive? Should I wear earmuffs and eye pads?

Then we are told that ‘they also visited Glasgow’s Emirates Arena, a key venue in this summer’s Commonwealth Games.’ 

Now, can someone tell me what the difference is between a venue and a key venue? How on earth did this bizarre word ‘key’ come to be bandied about, a meaningless cliche word everywhere? Who thought it up? What is the history of its etymology? What does its inclusion into a sentence add to its meaning? I had a boss once who talked at meetings of his ‘staff’ for weeks in advance about he would give a ‘key speech’ somewhere, and his audience would fall into a state of despond and despair upon hearing of this, for we thought we might have to listen to this ‘key’ speech, or pretend to, when the time came, and we never could understand what was to be ‘key’ about it; neither before nor after its rather hysterical delivery. Can anyone tell me, what does ‘key’ in this context mean? To me it just sounded like a puffed up, self-important and pompous description by a poop of his imaginary high status in the order of things, and I cannot reconcile this notion of what ‘key’ means with its use as a description of a venue in the forthcoming games. Does it mean ‘important’ or ‘main’, for if so, why not say so in the first place?

The English language as it is being published in the press is crumbling around us, and this short glance at the news tonight, one item only, is enough to prompt this contribution to your pages.

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I too find 'gifted' when used to mean 'given' intensely irritating.
I suspect the rise of the usage derives from word processors which by default pounce on the passive, and flag 'given' as unacceptable.
'She was a gifted child' is OK in my mind, and I can tolerate 'the Guggenheim has been gifted the works of the artist by his estate' as there is to me something institutional about 'gifting.'
But I start jumping up and down when I hear or see something of the order of 'my mother has gifted us a box of biscuits this Christmas.'
It seems pompous, clunky, and to not improve upon 'mum gave us biscuits.'

Ethelred Nov-07-2014

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I am pleased to be for once in line with a "noted luminary". :)

It just seems to me that we are seeing more and more of this kind of verbal shorthand and there are also signs of it creeping into to the written language.
Some may see this as evolutionary or even beneficial; I have my doubts.

user106928 Jun-06-2014

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@HS - that puts you pretty well in line with Prof Brians at WSU (link above). But is it very far from saying "this is the key to our success" to "this is key to our success"? Yes, you could say "vital" or "crucial", but I see nothing wrong with having another arrow in the quiver.

I forgot to say earlier, when I said 'key' (before a noun) was short and punchy, that I just don't see how that can be thought 'pompous'. I suppose I see "key" used so much in business contexts that I've never even thought about it and take it for granted that everyone knows what it means - my students certainly do. It's pretty normal these days to talk of key clients /key accounts, key objectives, key markets - all of these expressions have been used in the Economist, which is good enough for me. If anything it seems to me to be a shorthand word rather than a pompous one.

But I suppose that at least I've learnt a new word, or at least a new meaning of a word - 'poop' (Number 5 at Oxford Online).

Warsaw Will Jun-05-2014

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No problems with the use of key as an adjective preceding a noun in phrases such as "a key component" or even "a key venue".
Where it is annoying is in phrases like "that is key" or "stamina is key".

user106928 Jun-04-2014

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A couple of links, one more or less taking the side of those who don't like 'key' as an adjective:

And a fairly neutral one about adjectives being formed from nouns at the Macmillan Dictionary blog:

Skeeter Lewis - I agree that this could sometimes be confusing when talking about age (although, as usual, context is everything), but just to mean only has a long history, and I see no problem with things like "It's just another mile or so"

A quick site search suggests that "was just 18" as opposed to "was only 18" is rather more popular in the British tabloids than in the qualities (although it certainly exists there as well). Ngram does indeed suggest that the use of 'was just 18' to mean 'only' has certainly increased since the 1960s, but you can find examples from the eighteenth century in Google Books, although it's difficult to tell whether there is a recency factor or not.

You're probably right about fashions, and that can be annoying, but I don't think that makes words or expressions bad in themselves. And secondly, just because we already have one word for something, I don't see that as a reason for not using others as well. As someone remarked on another thread, that we would always say huge and never enormous.

Going back to "key", I think jayles nailed it on the head when he said that it's short and punchy - so we have "a key venue" rather than "one of the most important and prestigious venues" (it was also built specially for the games and quite expensive).

Warsaw Will Jun-04-2014

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Yes, there's a coterie in the media that gets over-excited by new usages. For example, in the past a writer might say, "Anne was only eighteen." Now, it has to be, "Anne was just eighteen." To me, that means she's had her birthday recently.

Skeeter Lewis Jun-04-2014

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Salve Brus!

The key question here is under which key circumstances are we to admit new lexical items into mainstream English. De facto, English has always been changing, and nolens volens we must face this key reality. The status quo is no different from what has gone before.

Of course the fourth estate is at the slicing edge of change: written by key professionals who seek punchy new phrases and short headlines. "Key" as an adjective is shorter than the alternatives.

Semper rectum est quod vox populi dicit.

(rectum means correct not "rectum")

jayles Jun-03-2014

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Would you also object to "key witness" and "key evidence"? - this article is related but not exactly about the same thing -

Warsaw Will Jun-03-2014

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Key is a buzzword that irritates me too. Much over-used.

Skeeter Lewis Jun-03-2014

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1. I vaguely remember reading somewhere that gift as a verb is not uncommon in Scottish English. It is relatively formal, and is especially when something is given officially. This use in Scotland goes back to at least 1602. What is strange is that several publications carry exactly the same sentence, so its provenance is quite difficult to work out, but given the context I imagine it started off in a Scottish publication.

2. Key venue - I really don't see the problem here - a key venue is a very important venue . There will be at least fifteen venues at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and presumably the writer considers this to be one of the more important ones. Oxford Online defines key as 'Of crucial importance' - 'she became a key figure in the suffragette movement', so it's a bit stronger than simply saying important. Other dictionaries also define it as very important, vital, crucial etc

I don't know its etymology, but keynote was being used to mean 'leading idea' as early as 1783. But it seems to me that several languages use key to mean important or essential, at least in certain expressions. In French, for example there's the expression 'position-clé':

Position-clef. "Le problème des transports (...) occupe une position-clé dans l'économie d'un pays" - L'Attif

In Spanish there's palabra clave = "palabra reservada cuyo uso es esencial para el significado y la estructura de una sentencia" - Diccionario R.A.E

"Key decision" seems to be literally translated in several languages (the noun for key is in brackets)

French - (cléf) - "La décision rendue par la Cour d'appel fédérale est une décision clé sur l'interaction entre les marques de commerce et les brevets au Canada"

Spanish - (clave) - "Una decisión clave: el futuro del Metro para Quito"

Italian - (chiave) - "Processo ai marò, rinviata a domani la decisione chiave"

Polish - (klucz) - "była to decyzja kluczowa" - it was a key decision

Czech - (klíč) - "Klíčové rozhodnutí pro digitální rozhlas" A key decision for digital radio

Maybe not key venue but something like it - key place:

"Pourquoi les bibliothèques sont un lieu clé pour une société numérique"

"El corcho y el alcornoque ocupan un lugar clave en la evolución del bosque mediterráneo"

"Warszawa jest dla has kluczowym miejscem w UE"

Key to mean important or essential seems to me make perfect sense and totally unexceptionable. In the British National Corpus, this in fact seems to be the most common use of the word key, after its meaning of 'solution, answer'. It collocates particularly with:

issue, role, element, factor, area, point, feature

This use in English appears to go back at least to the 1920s.

"The English language as it is being published in the press is crumbling around us" - Oh, I love that! Nonsense, of course, but great fun.

Warsaw Will Jun-03-2014

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