Illustration by Jim Cooke

This notion of “phrases that are worse than meaningless”—let’s discuss it.

I submit to you, my friends, that the phrase “this notion of” is a rhetorical tic that is indicative of the speaker’s insecurity and paralyzing need to prove themself as thoughtful, intelligent, and urbane. After some time, this intellectual insecurity manifests itself with the automatic insertion of the phrase “this notion of” in front of virtually any discrete idea or concept. The phrase serves absolutely no function except to make its speaker sound more thoughtful.

When speaking normally—to friends, to family, to colleagues, in any relaxed social setting, even when discussing serious topics—how many people have you prefaced something with the phrase “this notion of?” I doubt if there are very many such people at all. (If you have you are a weird statistical outlier and I am going to ignore you.) But in a setting where you want to appear smart—an academic setting, or while giving a speech, or in a media appearance, or in a work presentation, or in any sort of fancy discussion in which you want people to believe you have thought deeply about the topic on which you are holding forth—how many people have inserted the superfluous and unenlightening phrase “this notion of” into a sentence? I wager that many of you are now blushing in shame. The use of the phrase “this notion of” is correlated not with actual intelligence, but rather with a burning desire to sound intelligent in a particular setting.

Consider the following pair of sentences:

“I can’t figure out Chapter Two in our economics book.”
“I’m struggling with this notion of inflationary and deflationary cycles.”

Both sentences say the same thing. But the first one sounds like something an idiot would say, while the second one seems to portray an intellectual wrestling boldly with weighty ideas. Here’s one more:

“I paint pictures that are pretty.”
“My art explores this notion of beauty—this notion of aesthetics.”

The second sentence is actually inferior because it is more opaque and less honest, but do not tell that to anyone who has been tasked with writing an “artist statement.”

What makes this insidious phrase so detestable is that it never adds anything of value to a sentence other than a palpable sense of thirst. Let’s look at a few more real examples from recent published stories. In which of these does the phrase “this notion of” do anything but make a sentence longer?

In how many of these examples does the phrase “the notion of” add something valuable?


At best, the phrase should be replaced with “the idea of.” (“Notion” is a prissy word that no one uses or should use in the course of daily life unless they personally write a Blogspot blog called “Notions ‘n Things.”) At worst, the phrase conveys the opposite of what it is supposed to convey: it is a dead giveaway that the person does not really understand the idea in question. By tacking on this gauzy phrase, the speaker or writer can add a philosophical haze to the topic at hand that is the opposite of the sort of precision that comes with having a solid grasp of the subject matter.

When we speak of this notion of “communication,” we are often seeking this notion of “words that actually mean things.” This notion of “appending a meaningless phrase to something in order to sound smart” goes directly against this notion of “saying what you mean.” Sure, it might help with this notion of “being invited to speak at conferences full of pseudointellectual hustlers.” But this notion of habitually saying “this notion of” is driven primarily by this notion of “bullshit.”