Max Sawicky noticed that I use the phrase “my guess” a lot. A few weeks ago, Julian Sanchez wrote,

But it occurs to me that in addition to the phrases at large in the written culture of the society, there are individual prose-crutches particular writers tend to fall back on again and again. One has to be careful here, because you don’t want to lump ordinary elements of someones personal style and authorial voice into this category—those are good things to have—but rather focus on those little tics that breed laziness by substituting for words or constructions that might be fresher or more apt for the particular piece.

Of course, one’s own tics are usually more obvious to others, so I thought I’d impose on you guys: What are the words, phrases, and constructions any of you who’ve been reading for a while notice recurring?

It had not occurred to me before seeing Max’s post, but my guess is that “my guess” is indeed one of my verbal tics. It does fit in with my rhetorical style. I would rather err on the side of understating the evidence I have to support a claim. I want to avoid making a firm pronouncement that turns out to be false. If I am going to have to retract something, I would rather have prefaced the claim with “my guess.”

A more courageous and useful approach might be to give my subjective truth probabilities whenever I make a claim. Let me revise that: I believe that there is a 70 percent chance that if I replaced “my guess” with numerical probabilities, then my writing would be fresher and more apt.

In the original “Sicko” post to which Max refers, I actually would have assigned a fairly high probability (about .90) to the accuracy of my assessment of a medical case used in Michael Moore’s film. I was suggesting that rather than illustrating the racism and life-destroying nature of America’s health care system, it was illustrating a case of a doctor proposing desperate, expensive, unproven treatment in a hopeless case. I was about 90 percent sure that my assessment would be supported by a careful review of the medical knowledge available.

Since then, a blogger who calls himself “the independent urologist” posted this comment on another medical web log.

I am unaware of any non-investigational bone marrow therapies for advanced renal cell or transitional cell kidney cancer.

Based on that, and other comments on my original post, I would revise my probability upward, to at least .99.

By the way, one of my favorite writers of all time has “in which” as a tic. Can you name that writer? It should be easy.