One of Orwell’s sillier pieces of writing advice is “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” Orwell advises “scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness.” But then wouldn’t he have to also scrap the metaphorical use of the verb “scrap” and the cliché phrase “has outworn its usefulness”? My point is not that Orwell is a hypocrite, that he himself breaks his own rules: that would be all too easy. Rather, the advice is simply incoherent and impossible to follow. Words tend to fall into statistical probable clusters, and part of being a language-user is to fall into some of those patterns along with everyone else. We scream in agony, or are “abundantly clear.”
We don’t just have a vocabulary of words, but a vocabulary of idiomatic expressions. As a teacher of a foreign language, I am constantly correcting unidiomatic Spanish, things that would make no sense at all to a native speaker of Spanish. What Orwell calls dead metaphors are just idiomatic phrases. We call them clichés because of old printer’s jargon. You could keep the moveable type for a particular phrase together in one place so you didn’t have to reset it every time. Another word for this was a stereotype. Knowing clichés or idiomatic expressions and using them correctly is part of being competent in a language.
I’m not saying that you should reach for the cliché as your first resort, or that you should never try to reduce your unthinking usage of them. I try not to use the phrase “makes a valuable contribution to the field” in a book review, for example, because that is THE cliché phrase in that genre. But generally speaking, clichés are simply the way things happen to be said in a particular language.
In linguistics this is known as “chunking.”
The Washington Post compiles a helpful list; it’s up to 200. I am guilty of using the following in speaking (and the first one listed here in writing, too – alas):
Any “not-un” formulation (as in “not unsurprising that you’d use that cliche”)
Less than you think (how do you know what I think?)
More often than not
The new normal
For all intents and purposes
Don’t get me wrong …
Some clichés irritate more than others. I tend to stop listening when I hear “Orwellian” or “double-down.”
Lawyer and language genius Bryan Garner over at LawProse.org spells out, in typically lucid fashion, how to compose documents when you know they will be read on a computer screen rather than on paper.
1.Summarize. It’s important to learn the art of summarizing concretely. Avoid airy generalizations and instead make pithy, practical, vivid summaries. These should always appear at the fore. (By the way, a LawProse survey has demonstrated that 87% of headings that say “Executive Summary” are highly misleading: what follows is a true summary only 13% of the time.)2.Give bearings. The architecture of your writing must be overt: you must use highly informative headings, preferably full sentences that amount to succinct propositions.3.Cut the clutter. Clutter is more anathema than ever. With on-screen reading, it’s even easier to flick over pages with just a scan. Readers can skim page after page with just a swipe of the finger. So anything extraneous must be eliminated altogether or radically subordinated. Anything that sets the reader to skimming or skipping must go.
You must always edit any serious document by hand, after printing it out. Sending an important document without that step is a serious mistake.
A friend in the media emailed me this morning: “Everyone keeps talking about hostages having been taken in Paris. Doesn’t the word ‘hostage’ imply a demand on the part of the terrorists? They made no demands; they intended all along to slaughter them. Wouldn’t captive be a more appropriate word, or am I over-thinking this?”
I replied: “You are definitely right about ‘hostage’ being the wrong word and for the reasons you say. I would say that ‘captive’ is also the wrong word, because captives are prisoners – not intended victims of murder. At the very least, one ‘holds’ a captive for a predetermined period of time; this was not the case yesterday. To see how ‘captive’ is the wrong word: One would not say that a person killed in his/her or another person’s home is a captive – same for a person killed in a restaurant in a drive-by. I think ‘intended victim’ is the closest. There is no single word for ‘terrorist victim,’ and it seems discourteous to refer repeatedly to the slain as ‘terrorist victims’ – two awful words to describe innocent souls.”
My friend’s reply: “Alas, ‘intended victim’ is clumsy.”
About this one can truly say, There is no word.
In Fairport, New York, where I grew up, there were lots of Italian American families, and I had many Italian American friends (still do). I married an Italian American from Liverpool, New York, and have a son from this marriage who, though he is only *half* Italian American, regards himself as *almost completely* Italian American. I noticed the way my friends and my (then) in-laws and wife pronounced words for food dishes did not correspond (to my ear) to either the spelling or the pronunciations provided in my fat dictionary. Writer Dan Nosovitz of AtlasObsucra.com explains why, in How Capicola Became Gabagool: The Italian New Jersey Accent, Explained:
Let’s do a fun experiment and take three separate linguistic trends from southern Italian dialects and combine them all to show how one Standard Italian word can be so thoroughly mangled in the U.S.
First: “The features that you’ll find across a lot of these dialects, and one that you still hear a lot in southern Italy today, is vowels at the ends of words are pronounced very very softly, and usually as more of an ‘uh’ vowel,” says Olivo-Shaw. D’Imperio is a little more extreme, calling it “vowel deletion.” Basically: if the final syllable is a vowel? You can get rid of it. Vowel deletion is common amongst many languages, and is done for the same reason that, sometimes, vowels are added: to make the flow from one word to another more seamless. It’s easiest, in terms of muscle movement, to transition from a vowel to a consonant and vice versa. A vowel to a vowel is difficult; in English, that’s why we have “a” versus “an” in phrases like “a potato” or “an apple.” Some Italian words that would follow food words, like prepositions or articles, would start with a vowel, and it’s easier to just remove it so you don’t have to do the vowel-to-vowel transition.
The stereotypical Italian “It’s a-me, Mario!” addition of a vowel is done for the same reason: Italian is a very fluid, musical language, and Italian speakers will try to eliminate the awkwardness of going consonant-to-consonant. So they’ll just add in a generic vowel sound—”ah” or “uh”—between consonants, to make it flow better.
Second: “A lot of the ‘o’ sounds will be, as we call it in linguistics, raised, so it’ll be pronounced more like ‘ooh’,” says Olivo-Shaw. Got it: O=Ooh.
And third: “A lot of what we call the voiceless consonants, like a ‘k’ sound, will be pronounced as a voiced consonant,” says Olivo-Shaw. This is a tricky one to explain, but basically the difference between a voiced and a voiceless consonant can be felt if you place your fingers over your Adam’s apple and say as short of a sound with that consonant as you can. A voiced consonant will cause a vibration, and voiceless will not. So like, when you try to just make a “g” sound, it’ll come out as “guh.” But a “k” sound can be made without using your vocal cords at all, preventing a vibration. So “k” would be voiceless, and “g” would be voiced. Try it! It’s fun.
Okay so, we’ve got three linguistic quirks common to most of the southern Italian ancient languages. Now try to pronounce “capicola.”
The “c” sounds, which are really “k” sounds, become voiced, so they turn into “g”. Do the same with the “p”; that’s a voiceless consonant, and we want voiced ones, so change that to a “b”. The second-to-last vowel, an “oh” sound, gets raised, so change that to an “ooh.” And toss out the last syllable. It’s just a vowel, who needs it? Now try again.
My Central New York State friends and family didn’t share the famously distinctive accents of their New Jersey brethren, but they did pronounce “Prosciutto” like this: “pruh-zhoot” (or “bruh-zhoot,” beginning with the voiced consonant).
Anciently, almost all rhetorical communication was done orally in the public forum. Ancient orators had to memorize their speeches and be able to give them without notes or crib sheets. Note taking as a way to remember things was often looked down upon in many ancient cultures. …
Because the orations of ancient rhetoricians could last several hours, they had to develop mnemonic devices (techniques that aid memory) to help them remember all the parts of their speeches. The most famous and popular of these mnemonic devices was the “method of loci” technique.
The method of loci memory technique was first described in written form in a Roman treatise on rhetoric called ad Herennium, but it also made appearances in treatises by Cicero and Quintilian. It’s an extremely effective mnemonic device and is still used by memory champions like Joshua Foer, author of the recent book, Moonwalking With Einstein.
To use the method of loci, the speaker concentrates on the layout of a building or home that he’s familiar with. He then takes a mental walk through each room in the building and commits an engaging visual representation of a part of his speech to each room. So, for example, let’s say the first part of your speech is about the history of the Third Punic War. You can imagine Hannibal and Scipio Africanus duking it out in your living room. You could get more specific and put different parts of the battles of the Third Punic War into different rooms. The method of loci memory technique is powerful because it’s so flexible.
In his excellent blog, LawProse, Bryan Garner makes a good case for trying to memorize the prose of good writers.
What did David Foster Wallace and Robert Louis Stevenson have in common? They taught themselves to write better using the same technique: reading short passages from superb writers, trying to re-create from memory the passages they’d just read, and then assessing how their own versions compared with the originals. The assumption was always that the original was superlative—and that each departure from exact replication was a slight failure. It’s a superb technique to improve your command of syntax, punctuation, and phrasing. …
Here’s what David Foster Wallace said about the exercise: “If you’re like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate the passage that you’ll actually learn what’s going on.” Robert Louis Stevenson called the exercise “playing the sedulous ape.” He said: “I was unsuccessful, and I knew it; and tried again, and was again unsuccessful and always unsuccessful; but at least in these vain bouts, I got some practice in rhythm, in harmony, in construction and the coordination of parts.”
So even though the best exercise is to repeat the drill using the same passage, this technique is not an exercise in rote memorization and reproduction. It’s a technique to improve your attention to the building blocks of superb writing and to develop your feel for them. As you do that, you’ll be able to appreciate the cadences, syntax, punctuation, etc. in your own writing.
Read the whole post and try one of Garner’s nifty practice exercises.
photo by Bob Basil
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