A Phrase To Be Retired: Best Practice

Every human endeavor has its own vocabulary. Auto mechanics shorthand expressions and jargon—though beware if he or she tells you that you need a new Johnson Rod as you will pay good money for no part and no service—like every other endeavor under the sun. This is true for sports and business. Over time, specialized language from these fields makes its way into the general vocabulary. When I was a boy, it was a bad thing to the “the goat,” as it signified that one had failed, perhaps, like Charlie Brown, giving up a game-running hit. Now GOAT signifies “Greatest of All Time.” “Time-sensitive” is another such piece of shorthand. It signifies that a piece of business is urgent and needs to be addressed immediately. Why one word, urgent, had to be replaced with “time-sensitive” is unclear. “Best practice” is a business term that has gained currency in recent years. Remarkably, however, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it first appeared in Popular Science almost a century ago, in 1927. The next entry is dated 1984, from an accounting text book. The final entry is dated 2010, from the UK Independent newspaper. It was about that time that we began to see the phrase occurring more frequently in popular usage.

It is a phrase, however, whose time has come. I gave up on it when, in a business meeting at which I was in attendance, one person asked a perfectly reasonable question, which was met with the reply, “That is best practice.” What is so disagreeable about this term is that it is not an answer. It is a  patent attempt to buffalo (what a wonderful expression) one into submitting to a non-answer. It is a naked appeal to authority and quite probably guilty of an informal fallacy (argumentum ad verecundium). “Best practice”? As determined by whom? When? Where? How do we know? Is there a manual that we can all download to find out what “best practice” is for this or that? As I have suspected, it is a claim that can be used to justify just about anything. E.g., recently, the housing director at UNLV defended the practice of ethnically segregated housing as “best practice.”  Excuse me, but according to the 1964 Civil Rights act and the Fair Housing Acts of 1968, segregated housing is not best practice. In fact, it is probably illegal.

Let us return the bison to their natural habitat: the Great Plains and the mountain states. If someone thinks that we ought to do x and someone else thinks we ought to y, fine. Let us each make reasoned arguments as to why a policy is better.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Can everyone also stop using the expression, “Let me *unpack* this passage.” I know that “unpack” is so with it, but also so overused. How did it become such a fad? Let’s replace “unpack” with “explain”.

  2. Rather than retire the phrase (in medicine, the preferred alternative is “standard of care” or to enhance “best practices” with “evidence-based”), why not press the speaker to explain why such-and-such is the best way to proceed? Stonewalling non-answers should not be accepted–the speaker has invoked the equivalent of “because I said so,” which might work against small children but does not serve a group of adults.

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