ENGLISH PLAIN & SIMPLE

Usage of the phrase ‘on the ground’ in official circles getting out of hand

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Jose A. Carillo

Jose A. Carillo

I’D like to share with readers this rather provocative e-mail from business columnist Oscar P. Lagman, Jr., asking me to comment on the frequent use nowadays of the phrase “on the ground” by personalities in the news. He thinks that their overuse of the idiom is “inappropriate,” saying that it reminds him of my oft-said comment in my columns that “at the end of the day” is annoyingly overused by media and government officials.

Mr. Lagman wondered how and why the mechanical use of the phrase “on the ground” came about in the following statements:

Defense Secretary DelfinLorenzana on the Davao City bombing incident: “There are still suspects on the ground.”

Former Ambassador Jose Cuisia on the United States as a reliable ally: “The US was first on the ground in Tacloban after Yolanda.”


Fr.Ranhilio Aquino of San Beda Law commenting on Edgar Matobato’s testimony in a Senate hearing: “If he has evidence on the ground…”

Senator Richard Gordon during the Senate inquiry on extrajudicial killings: “…the facts on the ground.”
Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo: “…responders on the ground.”

University of the Philippines Prof. Clarita Carlos: “…operational teams on the ground.”
Senator RizaHontiveros: “The UN has been talking on the ground.”

And an unnamed TV announcer covering a basketball game: he referred to “the players on the ground” instead of “the players on the floor” or “players in the court.”

Mr. Lagmanthen pointed out that CNN reporters understandably use the expression “the forces on the ground”when reporting military battles, as in the recent coup attempt in Turkey and in the assault on the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, particularly when the video clip of the latter shows only ground troops advancing towards the city without any air support or naval support.

My reply to Mr. Lagman:

As you observed above, the idiomatic phrase “on the ground” indeed has its mainsprings in journalistic reporting from places where war or fighting is taking place,whether a battlefield, beachhead, or bastion under siege. In general, events “on the ground” are where things are actually happening, not at a distance, as in the sentence, “The watchers will be monitoring developments on the ground.”

Among the Philippine examples you presented, only Defense Secretary Lorenzana’s remark that “There are still suspects on the ground” would qualify as a literally appropriate usage of “on the ground,” for indeed there had been actual fighting between government forces and rebels in Davao. Perhaps Ambassador Cuisia’s remarks using “on the ground” in the US relief effort in Tacloban after Typhoon Yolanda might also qualify,forit was a major operation to help thousands survive the ravages of hunger, disease, and deprivation.

In contemporary times, however, “on the ground” can now be used to mean any place or any field of endeavor where anything serious or critical is happening. Even so, unless the speakers you quoted sincerely believe that what they are undertaking is so crucial that it can be considered “the moral equivalent of war,” I don’t think it’s appropriate to use “on the ground” in their respective statements. That phrase would be semantically off and grammatically needless, even sounding like an affectation.

Indeed, Fr. Aquino’s “If he has evidence…” would have sufficed without the gloss of “on the ground”; Senator Gordon could have simply said “…the facts”; SecretaryTaguiwalo could just have referred to “…responders there”; Prof. Carlos to “…operational teams there”; and Sen. Hontiveros could have just said “The UN has been talking…” That simple.

As to theunnamed TV announcer covering that basketball game, referring to “the players as being “on the floor” or “in the court”—not “on the ground”—would have marked him as anauthentic sportscaster rather than a possible war freak doing a much less tamer assignment.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo. E-mail: j8carillo@yahoo.com

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