Write Stuff: Think You’re Clever?

Alan Crawford write_stuff
16 Dec, 2021

IMPACT

The Write Stuff

Alan Crawford write_stuff
December 2021

Think You’re Clever?

An acquaintance who shall go unnamed loves to post birthday greetings to his Facebook friends. This would be a nice gesture if the way he did it were not so grating. “Felicitous salutations on the anniversary of your nativity,” he writes.

Apparently, “Happy birthday” is not good enough. He has found a more original way to express the thought, which is what people tend to do when they (1) believe all clichés are to be avoided like the proverbial plague, or (2) just want to show how clever they think they are.

Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage, published in 1966 and still valuable in later editions today, addresses this issue with his characteristic insight and good sense. Acknowledging “the indiscriminate condemnation of clichés,” Follett writes, “a great many set phrases are indispensable for easy conversation and effective writing. Such phrases offer as their main advantages brevity, clarity, and unobtrusiveness.”

Alan Crawford is a published author and journalist who, in his books and articles, has written on the period of the United States’ founding and the American tradition.

“Happy birthday” is brief, clear and unobtrusive. “Happy birthday” says what needs to be said in four syllables. “Felicitous salutations on the anniversary of your nativity,” which consists of 21 syllables, requires the reader to figure out what on earth the writer is trying to say.

Theodore Bernstein says in The Careful Writer that the cliché “is sometimes the most direct way of expressing a thought.” The trick is being aware of the temptation to use a pat phrase thoughtlessly and, when you catch yourself doing that, to ask if there’s a better way to express the idea — a better way, not a fancier or more original way. Often there isn’t one. “Happy birthday” is good enough. You can’t improve upon it, and you waste everybody’s time, including your own, trying to spiff it up.

Follett, by the way, offers stern counsel against taking a cliché and trying to inject new life into it by inserting modifiers, like I did in the second paragraph when I wrote “the proverbial plague.” Writers who are showing off do that, to let the reader know that they know they are using a cliché but are determined to do it anyway. This is a mistake, Follett says. It is done “to affect originality where it is not wanted.” (My bad.)

So, Blithesome Christmas and a Fortuitous New Year!

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