One thing that annoys me in my work as an editor of (primarily academic) books is the propensity of academics to insert qualifiers that have no apparent function but to weaken prose; I assume they arise from a primal “cover your ass” instinct, and I delete them unless they seem justified. I’ve just run across a beautiful example in the latest New Yorker,in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Chase” (called in the online version “The Race for a Zika Vaccine”), which begins with the kind of collar-grabbing anecdote so beloved of journalists: “On a Saturday morning in April of 2014, Nenad Macesic, a thirty-one-year-old doctor-in-training, received an urgent phone call from the emergency room of Austin Hospital, just outside Melbourne, Australia.” (As I side note, I would dearly love to know how to pronounce Macesic; it’s from Serbo-Croatian Maćešić/Маћешић, roughly “MAH-che-sheech,” but that may not have much to do with how an Australian bearing the name would say it; why can’t the New Yorker do what the NY Times does and add a parenthetical pronunciation guide?) Macesic learns that the woman in the emergency room has the then obscure Zika virus and starts paying attention to it:
In mid-July, 2015, there was more disturbing news. Forty-nine cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome—a neurological condition, marked by flaccid paralysis, that can be associated with an aberrant immune response to a virus—were reported in Brazil, echoing a sharp increase in the syndrome which was noticed in Polynesia during the Zika outbreak there. Zika had also begun to move through Cape Verde and Colombia. Macesic recalled tracking it on ProMED—“following Zika around the globe had become my small addiction,” he told me. “But the most devastating complication, the one that virtually no one had really anticipated, was still to come.”
The complication, of course, was microcephaly, which is why people are terrified of mosquitoes now, but what I want to focus on here is the phrase “virtually no one had really anticipated” (objectionable qualifiers highlighted). I find it hard to believe that there were people who did anticipate it, since it seems unprecedented and I have heard no reports of any such prediction; as far as I can see, there is no reason not to say “the one that no one had anticipated” except that Macesic is afraid of a gotcha: “Actually, Pete the Prognosticator anticipated that back in 2012!” But all the qualifiers do is turn the surrounding text to mush. Please, people, I know you like to be accurate, but save the qualifiers for when they do a necessary and useful job.