I had gone for over two years without regularly attending an office, but it took a mere six weeks for office culture to ensnare my grammar all over again. During a phone call earlier this week, I was horrified to discover the following words coming out of my mouth: “so we just need to confirm up a few things.” Confirm up? UP?? A cold sweat ensued. Shaken, I mumbled some hasty apologies and said I’d call back later.
What was the “up” doing in this sentence? Sitting there at the back end of a verb, it’s as embarrassing and unnecessary as the spoiler on the boot of a Ford Escort. During my life as a PhD student, I regularly get asked if I’m “writing up” yet, to which I grumpily reply that I am about to “start writing” or have “some writing to do.” I never expected to find myself scattering “ups” in this way.
But lest we forget: “please park up over there”, “time to finish up now please”, “I’m now heading up this organisation”, “here’s the membership application to get you joined up”, “we’ll firm up the details” and so on. Of course there are also more legitimate “ups” in circulation – “cashing up”, “adding up”, “washing up”, “sweeping up”, “clearing up”… funny how there are so many which relate to cleanliness. Which may be precisely the point. The metaphor that arises when “up” crops up is of leaves being efficiently swept into a pile, put into bags, then disposed of. A PhD needs “writing up”, only because one assumes that it is a hellish mess of ideas and research that has become scattered over time, and needs gathering, ordering and disposing of.
The flipside of the sweeping metaphor, however, is that the job is never really done. Sweeping leaves is actually a fairly pointless exercise, in the broader scheme of things, as the leaves will always come back. “I’ve swept the leaves” has a Beckettian ring to it, a sense of its own futility. Work has been done, but without constituting a job being done. By comparison, “I’ve swept up the leaves”…