The Tactical Essence of “Essentially”

Whenever you verge on inserting “essentially” into your prose, desist or at least resist.

“Essentially” is often but not always a dodge.

Consider the following:

At 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014, Barack Obama essentially declared himself king of the United States of America when he decreed that he has the unilateral authority to ignore the fact that the DREAM Act was not passed into law by Congress.

This op-ed contribution by Professor Scott Douglas Gerber appeared in The Lima News on 26 November 2014.  Professor Gerber then alerted the “Law and Courts Discussion List” of his latest publication.  This had what I presume to be its intended effect:  subscribers or readers went atwitter.

I stopped reading after that first sentence.  I could not concede or honor that first sentence, so I moved on.  Why should I read or consider banter or blather?

When the list started to react, I chuckled that, once again, I was in my own reverie.  To me the use of “essentially” was the interesting feature at once remarkable and unremarkable.  Dr. Gerber used “essentially” in an unremarkable manner common to academics.  I presume he intended readers to pare away petty objections to get to some nucleus or kernel or germ that Professor Gerber wanted to worry.  Nonetheless, Professor Gerber’s deployment of “essentially” was in part tactical, whether he would acknowledge it or not.

Barack Obama and his legion of admirers would contest that he had declared himself king, so Dr. Gerber deployed “essentially” to sweep away objections to his figure of speech.  In this tactical view of communication, I fixate on the stifling that “essentially” works, especially on those unwary.  For “essentially” in practice amounts to “do not criticize all of the aspects in which my claim and/or argument lacks plausibility or cogency;  instead, grant me that I am discerning some incontestable reality.”

Now Dr. Gerber’s op-ed badinage should not persuade even those who fall for “essentially.”  I did not comment on the rest of his op-ed because I did not bother to read it.  I strive not to bother with blather.  [Professor Gerber is free to disregard this posting on the same ground!]

I post herein to invite consumers of content to start to start every time they encounter “essentially.”  That adverb is often, perhaps even usually, an invitation to suspend disbelief and to supplant the consumer’s critical faculties with the content-creator’s tactical devices.

Essentially [sic] “essentially” invites the reader, the viewer, or the listener to collude with the writer, some performer, or a speaker in fending off many objections to this writing, that video, or a bit of audio.  If the medium demands concision that pushes the content-creator to skip counter-arguments, the content-consumer should notice that and proceed with great caution.

Read Dr. Gerber’s op-ed if you like.  All I ask is that you note that “essentially” hides all of the ways in which the regal trope is inappropriate.


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