Have you “seamlessly eliminated” your singing octopuses?

Here is a weird mixed phrase recently encountered while editing:

seamlessly eliminated

It took only a few seconds of pondering to break it down: it’s a jammed-together construction created from “seamlessly integrated” and “completely eliminated.”

Think of it visually and logically: can something be “seamlessly eliminated?” Not really. If you eliminate something, why would there be seams?

This is simply a bad mixed metaphor. Eliminations don’t leave seams. But integrations can. Seams result when you’re connecting things. If you’re cutting things out, what you create aren’t seams. They’re holes. Or gaps. Or scars. Or something else. But still not seams. In the patching process, seams might be created, but that’s a different situation.

This is precisely the kind of sloppy writing, caused by sloppy thinking, that Orwell cautioned against in Politics and the English Language. It results from not taking the time to think about what the words you’re using mean, or what the images you’ve chosen to use portray. It’s hard to beat Orwell’s extreme example — “The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song” — but “seamless elimination” is an error of the same general type.

This kind of malformed and confusing mixed metaphor is written or spoken all the time: as I was polishing this post, I heard an interview with a software industry analyst, in which a company’s product development strategy was described as “throwing things out the door to see what sticks.” Ouch. The mix of images is weak and contradictory: things are thrown out the door (or simply thrown out) to get rid of them; but things are thrown against the wall to see what sticks (and what sticks is then kept, not thrown out).

A reader of this blog might think that I’m being too picky by pointing this kind of thing out. I would argue instead that any reader (or listener) who doesn’t notice this kind of problem isn’t reading carefully enough. Likewise, the writer (or speaker) who makes this kind of error is certainly not putting their words together with care. Folks on both sides of the writer-reader equation who allow this sort of error to slide need to try harder.

I hadn’t noticed this combination before (“seamlessly eliminated“), so I poked around the Internet see if this error is common. It’s not: less than 250 examples turned up (and a few of those were coincidental word positioning). One of the examples was, quite embarrassingly, in a review of the Chicago Manual of Style (13th edition, 1983). Some of the other references were giggle-worthy errors, and a few were little more than gibberish masquerading as English. Considering that some of these appear to have been composed by non English speakers, and others seem not to be sure of their meaning in any case, this seems to be an unusual error. Searches for the other form (“seamless elimination“) give very similar search results.

The sensible version of the phrase — “seamlessly integrated” — shows close to 900,000 instances. This is a new phrase, first appearing in print only in 1972.

To date, there has been no use of “seamlessly eliminated” or “seamless elimination” in print (according to Google Ngrams). For now, it’s a fringe error. Let’s hope it stays that way.

= = = = =

A preemptive deflection for critics of this post’s title. From Oxford Dictionaries online:

The standard plural in English of octopus is octopuses. However, the word octopus comes from Greek and the Greek plural form octopodes is still occasionally used. The plural form octopi, formed according to rules for some Latin plurals, is incorrect.

This note appears in both the British and American English versions.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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4 Responses to Have you “seamlessly eliminated” your singing octopuses?

  1. i like the “seamlessly eliminated” mix. Great commentary though.

    • Thanks for the comment!
      I’m open to changing my mind. It’s happened before and will undoubtedly happen again. But so far, I haven’t seen a use of this phrase that holds up to close scrutiny. They’ve almost all been the kind of unthinking word combinations that often become common in corporate jargon. I’ve primarily seen it in software industry writing (so far), and only time will tell if it spreads into other jargon, or if it becomes accepted broadly.

      • (I abhor corporate jargon)
        As he pulled off his gloves, rinsed the knife and thought back to the events of several moments ago – he knew that he had seamlessly eliminated the one piece of evidence that could have proved he was guilty. He looked out the window and smiled, “It was just one box of Oreos and now its gone; no proof of any wrongdoing on my part at all.”
        As the doorbell rang and he moved across the mirror he smiled and noticed his oreo cookie stained teeth. The door began to open slowly and realizing that he had failed in his attempt yo hide the evidence. He smiled a closed mouth smile.

  2. Pingback: If your eyes are on the ground, where did you put your boots? | thebettereditor

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