Search and destroy: Situation

Here’s the situation: This month we’ve been looking at words that take up space without adding substance. Our first candidate was “facility,” followed by “process.” Today we’ll look at ways to banish “situation” from your writing.

First there’s the bad habit of automatically adding it to a word that already describes what you are talking about. Bring me up to date on the flood, not the flood situation. Tell me that a company faces bankruptcy, not a bankruptcy situation.

Once you know to look for it, you find superfluous “situations” all over, as in this headline from Oregon Public Broadcasting: “Staffing Shortage Creates Crisis Situation At Psychiatric Hospital.” Likewise, after the earthquake in Nepal this past April, ABC News quoted a traveler who described the local airport as a “complete madhouse.” But the reporter couldn’t resist padding it, saying the traveler “described the situation at the airport as a ‘complete madhouse.’ ”

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics should hang its bureaucratic head in shame for callings its employment report the Employment Situation Report. (Beware knee-jerk condemnation, however. The World Health Organization’s Ebola Situation Reports, for instance, really do report the sites of new Ebola cases.)

For that matter, look at the first three words in this post. Remove them, and what do you lose? Nothing.

Worse, though, is when “situation” is used as a substitute for real information. This past summer, a television station in Washington, D.C., reported on “a six hour-long barricade situation” that ended with an arrest. The station never got around to saying what the man had barricaded himself behind or inside. But at least we know that a barricade of some sort was involved. We learned even less from Southwest Airlines this past October. A Southwest flight out of Los Angeles had to turn back because of what the airline’s spokeswoman called “a rapidly escalating situation” between to passengers. Not a shouting match, not a fistfight. A situation. Hats off to the captain, however, who declared an emergency, not an emergency situation.

Worst of all is when “situation” is allowed to stand completely alone. “We have a situation” seems to mean that something bad has happened, but who knows what? Well, the person saying it should know what. If you are that person, just tell us what’s going on.



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