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Clichés Are Too Easy

Clichés are to good writing as McDonald’s is to fine dining. You don’t need to shun them altogether; occasionally they have their place. But overall, like fast food, the job they do isn’t worth the toll they take.

But what’s really so wrong with avoid like the plague? You know exactly what it means when I say it, and besides, I might be on a deadline. Why should I fritter away precious time trying to come up with something fresh and inventive when there’s this prefabricated, comfortably familiar turn of phrase available?

That’s the lure and the curse of clichés. They’re easy and they work, yes, but by definition, they’re tired and overused, even the new, trendy ones. They’re the earmark of the hack writer.

The irony is that clichés are victims of their own success. As trite and shopworn as they become, they were effective and brilliant when they were first coined. They flourish by expressing something universal in words and images that are memorable and original. There’s no such thing as an ineffective cliché, or it’s not really a cliché.

Clichés sometimes start as clever punchlines. About fifteen years ago, for a period of several months, it was funny to hear someone reply to an outburst of brutal frankness by dryly remarking, “So, what do you really think?” But now when I hear this, even though it’s still about as up-to-date as a cliché can be, I get a wee pain.

Same with “wait for it.” It’s become quite a favorite with the higher-brows among us. It signals the reader that something deliciously ironic or amusing or ridiculous is about to be revealed: “So they caught that sanctimonious Pastor Reynolds in a strip club last night, and he said he was just there to—wait for it—do some research.”

In closing, I’d like to try something either really instructive or really dumb…

Cliché Masterpiece Theater
My friend said in no uncertain terms: “Let’s cut to the chase. It goes without saying clichés are something you should kick to the curb, where the rubber meets the road. They stick out like a sore thumb. They spread like wildfire. If you want to be a good writer, don’t go there or you’ll be thrown under the bus. You’ll have your name dragged through the mud. It’s as plain as the nose on your face. That being said, at the end of the day, for all intents and purposes, the bottom line is that when you use them, all bets are off. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out; this isn’t brain surgery. It is what it is.”

“Tell me what you really think,” I quipped. I was just jerking his chain since I didn’t have a dog in this fight. But by the same token, you can’t have it both ways. I knew I had to step up to the plate. “Dude,” I intoned, “the long and the short of it is, anyone who thinks I’m not on the same page is barking up the wrong tree. It boggles the mind and it’s freaking me out. I won’t take it lying down.”

You have to get up pretty early in the morning to catch me using a cliché. So let’s get the ball rolling. Let’s get up to speed here. Let’s take the gloves off. Let’s pull out all the stops. Let’s push the envelope. Let’s circle the wagons and stop kicking the can down the road. We need to wrap our minds around this perfect storm and think outside the box. But, you kids: don’t try this at home.

In the court of public opinion, clichés are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they make your meaning clear as a bell; but on the other hand, long story short, in a heartbeat you’re confronted by a bunch of strange bedfellows who are shocked, shocked! That doesn’t pass the smell test.

Left to their own devices, these Einsteins seem to be having a field day with all their bells and whistles. They should give it a rest. They need to get over themselves, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

After all is said and done, this could have been a teachable moment—but, nooo! They had to turn it into a witch hunt.

Well, to them I say, “Right back at ya!” I’m not trying to sell snake oil to these snakes in the grass—these weasels who want to let the cat out of the bag, free as a bird. So in no way, shape, or form am I throwing in the towel. I’m drawing a line in the sand. I’ll fight this tooth and nail. When push comes to shove, I’m not falling on my sword. I’m not going from the frying pan into the fire. I’m not taking the bait like some deer in the headlights. No way, José. That would be deja vu all over again.

I’ve been around the block, but even if you held my feet to the fire, I couldn’t make people put their money where their mouth is—that’s above my pay grade.

Creature of habit? No, I’m crazy like a fox. If they keep fanning the flames, they’ll be dropping like flies. I refuse to be the poster child for being behind the eight ball when the chips are down.

Well, I think I’ve run out the clock. It’s time for the fat lady to sing. There’s nothing more to say—zero, zip, nada. I have to get out of Dodge.

This grammar tip was contributed by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, October 8, 2013, at 1:39 pm


Sweating the Small Stuff

At a football game a few weeks ago, Notre Dame University sold soda in cups that said, “Figthing Irish.” Did no one at this distinguished school have the time or pride to proofread a two-word slogan?

Here are a few other items we’ve seen recently and now wish we hadn’t…

Back to Basics Many professional journalists can’t find the subjects in their own sentences, like this one: “The final installment of those tapes—340 hours—were made public.” Make it “was made public.” The writer, distracted by “tapes” and “hours,” forgot that the subject, “installment,” was singular.

Ho-Hum: More Who-Whom Recently in this space, we discussed the difference between who (subject) and whom (object). Pronoun confusion has plagued our language for centuries. Some now claim that English would be fine without whom. But whom holds some mysterious attraction for people who shouldn’t be using it, because they keep getting it wrong, as in “…a man whom he thought was ready” (make it “who he thought was ready”).

Compare that with “Brown, who investigators had trouble reaching for interviews” and “Schulman, who he met on a blind date.” Here the writers were handed whom on a silver platter, but instead chose “who.”

How the Cookie Deconstructs Flawed sentences like those result from either carelessness or grammatical cluelessness. Just as prevalent, and deadly, is poor word choice caused by fuzzy thinking. Here’s a writer who sabotaged his own metaphor when he wrote, “…before the whole house of cards crumbles.”

Dead leaves and old walls crumble. A house of cards collapses.

POP QUIZ

Try to spot the errors or lapses in these sentences, written by professionals.

1. “The case is the latest in a series that have fueled public protests.”
2. “He was convicted in absentia to 20 years in prison.”
3. “…and Steenkamp, whom he believed was still in the bedroom.”
4. “A deadline to Syria to turnover its weapons.”
5. “The first time either of them have heard the recording.”

POP QUIZ ANSWERS

Not all of these sentences have one right answer. See if your remedies agree with ours.

1. The case is the latest in a series of events that have fueled public protests.
2. He was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison.
3. …and Steenkamp, who he believed was still in the bedroom. (i.e., who was still in the bedroom, he believed)
4. A deadline to Syria to turn over its weapons.
5. The first time either of them has heard the recording.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Wednesday, October 2, 2013, at 2:19 pm


Words Can Be Bullies

Words that start with the letter h don’t always act like it.

Consider “herb,” when it means “an aromatic plant used for seasoning in cooking.” Americans dump the h, whereas many Brits pronounce it. So we say “an ’erb,” but an Englishman says “a herb.”

A different sort of h-confusion happens when self-important speakers and writers say “an historic occasion” or “an heroic soldier.” Ever notice that “an” only precedes a few highfalutin h-words like “historic(al),” “hypothetical,” “hallucinogenic”? And they tend to have three or more syllables: “An heroic soldier” is also “a hero.”

About 20 years ago, Time magazine ran a front-cover headline beginning, “A Historic…” and misguided word nerds raised a furor, insisting Time should have said “An Historic”—but the magazine never budged, stating flatly that “an historic” is wrong.

In everyday conversation, would you describe a wailing brat as “an hysterical child”? I sincerely doubt it. But what makes “hysterical” so different from “historical”?

A Google check yields tips from various websites, which only reinforce common sense: “You should use ‘an’ before a word beginning with an ‘H’ only if the ‘H’ is not pronounced” (from the website wsu.edu/~brians/errors/anhistoric.html).

Or this: “you use an before vowel sounds…Following this rule, we would say ‘a historic,’ not ‘an historic’ ” (betterwritingskills.com).

Or this one, which ought to seal the deal: “I’d love to hear a reasonable argument, based on logic and not convention, in support of ‘an historic’…given the prevalence of such similar constructions as ‘a hotel downtown’ and ‘a high bar’ and ‘a hitman killed my dog’ ” (ask.metafilter.com).

Pomposity often leads to tortured language. I remember lawyer-turned-sportscaster Howard Cosell, rest his troubled soul, and the way he regularly subjected professional athletes to his cruel and unusual polysyllabic punishment. In general, jocks are spoiled, semi-educated boors, and they know it, so the tug-of-war between them and Cosell was great theater.

At its most sublime, it involved boxing champion Muhammad Ali. He and Howard made a great team, and there was genuine love and trust there. Whatever his faults, Cosell, perhaps at the risk of his own career, had taken up for the draft-evading Ali when the champ was something of a national pariah. (YouTube.com has many wonderful sequences of these two through the years.)

Although there was a good Cosell, all too often we got Bad Howard, neurotically insecure, the one who knew he was kept at arm’s length by these great physical geniuses—and resented it. He knew they mocked him, not caring that Cosell had more knowledge of more subjects than all of them put together. So he would sometimes do perverse things, like the time he bullied a poor rookie football player from some Deep South ghetto. Bad Howard said something like: “So, my young friend, in your estimation, did the immensity of the task assigned you, juxtaposed with the metaphysical certainty of your callow demeanor, effectuate a lessened or heightened capacity on your part?”

I’m not kidding. That’s pretty close to what Howard said. As the kid listened, his eyes widened with terror and confusion, as if he were being swarmed by a raging horde of ruthless linebackers. I don’t recall his answer.

Tom Stern

 

Pop Quiz
As we discussed last time, the great writer Elmore Leonard, who died August 20, deplored adverbs. Experienced writers like Leonard prefer strong nouns and verbs. In this quiz, try rewriting each sentence with greater precision and economy. There are no correct answers, but our suggestions may be found in the Answers section.

1. Avoiding wordiness is basically a simple principle of good writing.
2. He went into the room quickly.
3. She was incredibly thrilled by the experience.
4. He said things about us that were viciously harmful and insulting.
5. The committee strongly expressed disapproval of them.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Avoiding wordiness is a fundamental of good writing.
2. He hurried into the room.
3. The experience elated her.
4. He vilified us.
5. The committee censured them.

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Posted on Tuesday, September 3, 2013, at 6:53 pm


I’ll Be Hanged! Or, Have I Just Gone Missing?

Several readers responded to Tom Stern’s article The media made me do it which asked for alternatives to gone missing. Interestingly, the overwhelming choice was to simply replace the phrase with missing.

This is fine in many, perhaps most, cases, e.g., The man was missing instead of The man went missing. But it’s no help at all in sentences such as The man went missing two days ago. For such sentences, we have few options other than disappeared or vanished, which, as Stern pointed out, sounds as if the man in question were more the victim of a magic trick than a potential tragedy.

So dig deeper, readers! If you can come up with an inspired alternative to The man went missing two days ago, many will thank you for having done our beloved language a great service.

HANG IT ALL

Speakers and writers who value precision know that the past tense of hang, when it means “to put to death using a rope,” is hanged, rather than hung. This applies to both the active and passive voice: They hanged the prisoner and The prisoner was hanged.

For inanimate objects, use hung. Under unusual conditions, people also hung or are hung, e.g., He hung from the tree with one hand or He found himself hung upside down.

POP QUIZ
Select the correct word for each sentence.

1. We hung/hanged the stockings by the chimney with care.
2. The angry mob hung/hanged the outlaw Gomer Dooley.
3. The disgraced prime minister was hung/hanged from a lamppost in the town square.
4. An effigy of the prime minister was hung/hanged from a lamppost in the town square.
5. The man hung/hanged from the rafters with a rope around his waist.

POP QUIZ ANSWERS

1. We hung the stockings by the chimney with care.
2. The angry mob hanged the outlaw Gomer Dooley.
3. The disgraced prime minister was hanged from a lamppost in the town square.
4. An effigy of the prime minister was hung from a lamppost in the town square.
5. The man hung from the rafters with a rope around his waist.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Monday, July 29, 2013, at 9:29 pm


The Media Made Me Do It

I heard from a correspondent who hates the phrase gone missing. His e-mail called it an “ear-abrading” and “vulgar” usage. “Sends me right round the bend, mate!” he said.

I did a little digging and found that he’s far from alone. “Gone missing,” according to a word nerd at the Boston Globe, is “the least loved locution of the decade.”

According to the Globe piece, this “chiefly British” phrase has been around since the 19th century, so it’s not some trendy new grotesquerie. It’s also not ungrammatical—if you can go insane, you can surely go missing. So what makes people hate it so much?

Especially considering the lack of a good alternative: I’ve always felt that “vanished” and “disappeared” sound like the missing person was the victim of a magic trick. And “turned up missing”? Please spare me. Anybody with something better than gone missing, please write.

Maybe it’s that we have a complicated relationship with European savoir-faire in general…and the Brits in particular. Young American males, for instance, deal with a perceived sophistication gap, believing with some justification that English accents and guys named Colin get all the babes.

Ever since that little 18th century uprising of ours, many Americans traditionally have viewed Mother England with an uneasy mix of nostalgia and rebellion, so Brit-isms like “gone missing” can be irksome. Don’t you get irrationally annoyed when your artsy friend says, “Let’s wander about” instead of “around”? Or how about those people who write their phone numbers with periods instead of hyphens: 555.2940 instead of 555-2940…why do I hate that? Even someone putting that heinous horizontal bar through a 7 makes me crazy: “Look at me; I’ve been overseas, and now even my 7’s are refined.”

How many otherwise sensible Americans are mesmerized by Britain’s royal family? And from Cary Grant to Hugh Grant, there’s never been a shortage of British actors in Hollywood. In the early days of talkies, except for gangsters, cowboys, and blue-collar parts, leading men and women had distinct English accents, even though some of them came from Hell’s Kitchen.

Now that my correspondent has exposed my unthinking use of “gone missing,” it’s made me a kinder, gentler word nerd. Remember how the old, intolerant word nerd always blamed pretentiousness when people said “more importantly,” “close proximity,” or “comprised of”? I was being too hard. In fact, we are bombarded with these expressions daily by high-profile media hotshots till our resistance breaks down. With repetition by smug authority figures (who couldn’t pass English 101), some of the worst barbarities gain respectability.

Since we’re on this subject, let’s look at some words that broadcasters mangle.

Envelope, envoy, enclave Though you’d never know it from what you hear over the airwaves, the preferred pronunciation of these words’ first syllable is “enn” rather than the faux-French “ahn.”

Alleged It must come as a shock to many announcers, but alleged is a two-syllable word. It’s pronounced uh-LEJD, not uh-LEDGE-id.

Camaraderie is a five-syllable word, but you usually hear only four in the media. That letter a before the r should be a clue to say comma-ROD-ery, not com-RAD-ery.

Bestiality Everyone’s wrong about this one, because it’s not BEAST-iality. Look at the spelling and then tell me: how do you pronounce b-e-s-t?

Homage This word has spun out of control in the last several years, but for most of my adult life it was correctly pronounced HOMM-ij. Then came AHM-ij, and it went downhill from there. Now we have everyone sounding oh-so-elegant with the pseudo-sophisticated oh-MAHZH, for which there’s really no excuse.

This grammar tip was contributed by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Thursday, July 4, 2013, at 10:04 am