Monthly Archives: August 2011


Clichés Are the Poster Child for Bad Writing

Which, of course, is itself a cliché. Clichés are bad because they’re tired, overdone, unoriginal, dull, and mindless. They make you seem like everybody else, not like an individual with an interesting perspective and voice. But they’re hard to avoid because they express a concept in a vivid and effective way (otherwise, they wouldn’t have become so popular), and one that the reader is sure to understand. The combination of aptness and familiarity means that clichés are constantly occur…


I’m Relatable, You’re Relatable

Like so many other neologisms, this one arrived by stealth and then took over. I first noticed it about three years ago, in several of the online postings I require for literature classes. “I like the plot,” went this sort of comment, “but I just don’t find the main character relatable.”

For a while I chalked the term up to clumsy language use. The students meant that they could not identify themselves with, or “relate to,” Bigger Thomas or Daisy Buchanan. I don’t grade these postings on t…


I Wish I’d Said That

Stealing is, of course, wrong. I abjure it. But sometimes a piece of language is just too good not to be … well, we won’t say plagiarized, let’s say recycled. (“I wish I’d said that,” said Oscar Wilde once, admiring a witticism of James McNeill Whistler’s, and Whistler replied: “You will, Oscar, you will!” And I bet he did, too.)

I recently heard the University of Manchester computer scientist Ian Pratt-Hartmann handle a cellphone lecture interruption with the coolest line. I knew immediately I …


An Unexpected Truth About Copy Editors and Consistency

Don’t ever tell a copy editor that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. To begin with, anyone who knows the context of that chestnut knows that Emerson wasn’t thinking about whether website has a hyphen when he wrote it, and second, it’s rarely a good idea to make your copy editor think you’re an ignorant jerk. Third, whatever the stereotype, copy editors do draw a line when it comes to consistency, even to the point of having to explain to a writer sometimes why consistency is not …


Some Rules Are Nice and Simple. But . . .

If there’s one thing we know for sure about good health, it’s that we should drink eight eight-ounce glasses of water a day. A very nice rule. Simple, easy to remember, and anyone can do it. Just line those glasses up.

To be sure, not that many of us actually drink the eight eights, but we know we should.

The only problem is, there’s no basis for this rule, scientific or otherwise. Yes, we do need water every day, but not necessarily eight eights. And we certainly don’t need plain water; we …