Phrase Friday: Cliches

“I’m having the time of my life.”

“Let’s start with a clean slate.”

“He was driving like  bat out of hell.”

These are three examples of a cliche: an overused, often trite phrase, usually used to describe a person, thing or situation. It can be tempting to use cliches in your writing. Sometimes you might do it without even noticing.

The problem with using cliches is that they just aren’t very interesting. Why write about something in a way everyone has already heard? You’ll have a better chance of grabbing your reader’s attention if what you have to say is new to them.

Let’s start with those three phrases above:

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had, including that time when I parachuted off the Empire State Building!” – Not only does this grab the reader’s attention (who parachutes off the Empire State Building, anyway?), it tells you something about the person who is speaking. It also makes you want to know more – what could this crazy person consider more fun than parachuting off the Empire State Building? What on earth are they doing?

“Let’s do it again from the beginning, and this time I will try not to get angry.” – Again, don’t you feel like you know a lot more about the situation?

“The taxi driver was zooming through intersections and flying around corners, and I was quite honestly afraid for my life.” – Now you know who was driving, and you have a mental picture of where they are.

As always, context is extremely important, and while most cliches are one-size-fits-all phrases that can be applied in a variety of scenarios, coming up with an original description of your own is a lot more difficult.

Further reading: 681 Cliches to Avoid, The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill: Cliches and why you should avoid them, a dictionary of cliches, with explanations of what they mean and where they originated.

 

 

 

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Phrase Friday: With that having been said…

This phrase bugs me a lot because it doesn’t always appear grammatically correct. Having said that, you can say it in many different ways and there’s nothing really wrong with any of them:

  • That being said, …
  • That having been said, …
  • Having said that, …
  • That said, …
  • With that having been said, …
  • With that being said, …
  • Now that has been said, …

You get the idea. Surprisingly, all of these are grammatically okay to use. That being said, use what sounds best in the sentence – don’t just throw any old words in there! For example:

“I like ice cream. That having been said, I don’t really like banana splits.”

See how that sounds a little awkward? Try this instead:

“I like ice cream. Having said that, on second thought, I don’t really like banana splits.”

See how that makes much more sense? Think about the flow of your words and whether you are jerking the reader along or smoothly taking them through a thought. This is a big part of what an editor does: they can read your work as an impartial third party and see what the reader sees – especially in tricky scenarios like this, where you could easily have missed the awkward (but correct) phrasing.

Further reading: English Stack Exchange; Merriam-Webster

Phrase Friday: I Could(n’t) Care Less

I’ve seen a lot of contention over the correct way to say this phrase. Either way, usually the writer’s/speaker’s intent is “I don’t care,” but the phrase makes more sense if you use “couldn’t.”

  • I Could Care Less: this implies that you do care a little bit, because the potential for you to care less than you already do exists.
  • I Couldn’t Care Less: The implication here is that you don’t care at all, so you could not possibly care any less than you do.

Of course, the argument could also be made that “I couldn’t care less” would still be true if you cared a lot, but felt that there was no way you could stop caring. Whereas with “I could care less,” maybe you care a little, but you can find it in your heart to care even less than you do.

How would you say this phrase, and why?

Further reading: Dictionary.com; Grammar Girl

Phrase Friday: Non-English Phrases, Part 3 – Other Languages

globe
Image via foter.com

Read part 1 on Latin phrases here, and part 2 on French phrases here.

Why do most Americans only speak English? I think it’s because we don’t need to learn any other languages. English is the only language most of us will ever use to get through our day-to-day lives.

I know some Spanish and some Latin (a dead language, but hey! It counts), but I’m nowhere near fluent in either – though I’d like to be. I’ve just never had to use a language other than English to get by, so I’ve never been really forced to learn one. I think most Americans are similar. We studied a language in school, maybe even spent a month or two in a foreign country, but in the end never really “mastered” any other language.

Anyway, here are some non-English words and phrases English speakers use a lot. You might have heard some before, but it’s important to know what they really mean before you use them in anything you write – it’s easy to interpret words or phrases based on context, and forget that we don’t know their actual definition.

As always, please comment if you want to add any foreign words or phrases that I may have missed!

Hasta la vista: Spanish – usually used in place of “see you later,” but literally closer to “until the next time.”

Mano a mano: Spanish – directly or face-to-face, usually used in reference to a confrontation or conflict.

Prima donna: Italian – literally “first lady.” 1. a distinguished female operatic singer; a leading female operatic star; a diva 2. a person that’s considered vain, temperamental and/or conceited.

Alpha and Omega: Greek – “first and last” or “beginning and end.”

Hoi polloi: Greek – the common people; the masses.

Mazel Tov: Yiddish – Literally “good luck” – used to congratulate someone rather than to wish them a good outcome that hasn’t yet happened. Consider it more of a declaration that good luck has already fallen on someone and you’re congratulating them for it.

Nota bene: Italian – literally “note well.” Usually used in text, telling the reader to carefully observe what comes next.

Que sera, sera: Italian – this phrase became popular when Doris Day sang the song of the same name for the Alfred Hitchcock film, The Man Who Knew Too Much. Literally, it means “what will be will be.” It translates similarly in multiple languages so the exact origin is unknown, but it’s been around for a while: I found an excerpt on the phrase from the World Heritage Encyclopedia, via gutenberg.org, which says it may have originated in either Italy, Spain or France in the 15th or 16th century.

Schadenfreude: German – comes from schaden (harm) + freude (joy). Pleasure at someone else’s misfortune.

Verboten: German – forbidden, as by law; prohibited.

Zeitgeist: German – comes from zeit (spirit) + geist (time). The defining spirit or mood of a particular period of time.

Phrase Friday: Non-English Phrases, Part 2 – French

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France, Tower, Landmark, Europe
Photo via Pixabay

Also read last week’s post on Latin phrases.

For some reason, English speakers love French. Perhaps it’s simply because it is a pretty language. I think we have co-opted French phrases for a variety of reasons, though. French culture has been exported throughout Europe and even America over the centuries, in the forms of opera, ballet, music, wine, and more. Many of the phrases in the list below were popularized among English speakers this way.

Avant-garde – cutting edge; new; experimental; innovative. Usually refers to something in the arts (for example, “Shakespeare’s play Othello was avant-garde for its time”)

Bon voyage:  “have a pleasant trip” – an expression of goodwill at the start of a trip or new venture

Carte blanche: “blank paper” – unrestricted power to act at one’s own discretion; complete freedom

Cause célèbre: “famous case” – any incident that attracts great public attention

C’est la vie:  “that’s life” – such is life

Déjà vu:  “already seen” – the illusion of having previously experienced something actually being encountered for the first time

Du jour: “of the day” – 1.as prepared on the particular day; of the kind being served today (a restaurant’s “soup du jour”); 2. fashionable; current

Enfant terrible:  “terrible child” – usually refers to a famous or successful person who likes to shock people; a person whose unconventional behavior embarrasses others

Esprit de corps – a feeling of pride, fellowship, and common loyalty shared by the members of a particular group; team spirit

Faux pas:  “false step” – a slip or blunder in etiquette, manners, or conduct; an embarrassing social blunder or indiscretion

Femme fatale:  “fatal woman” – an irresistibly attractive woman, especially one who leads men into difficult or dangerous situations; a siren

Haute couture: “high dressmaking” – high fashion; clothing created by high fashion designers

Je ne sais quoi: “I know not what” – an indescribable or inexpressible thing

Joie de vivre: “joy of life” – a keen enjoyment of living; exuberance; lightheartedness

Menage-a-trois: “household of three” – a love triangle

Nom de plume: pen name; pseudonym

Piece de resistance: “means of resistance” – usually in reference to creative work or food – the most important or remarkable feature (for example, “the piece de resistance of the show was the artist’s 20 foot tall sculpture of a fire hydrant”)

RSVP: stands for “Respondez s’il vous plait”, meaning “please answer” – a reply to an invitation

Savoir faire: ability to say and do the right thing at the right time; tact; poise; sophistication

Phrase Friday: Non-English Phrases Used Frequently by English Speakers, Part 1 – Latin

Americans have a habit of using certain words and phrases from other languages, and we particularly love to use Latin and French. Italian, though less common, is also sometimes appropriated by English speakers, as are Greek and Spanish. While there’s nothing saying you shouldn’t use non-English phrases in your writing, it is important to know the correct spelling and meaning before you use them. Today I’ll cover Latin phrases, and next week I’ll talk about French ones. The following week, I will tell you about the less common phrases from other languages.

  • Ad absurdum: literally “to the point of absurdity” – used the same way you would the English phrase.
  • alma mater: “nurturing mother” – the school from which one graduates
  • cum laude: “with honor” – used in diplomas to grant special honors to those with above average grades
  • verbatim: in exactly the same words; word for word
  • E pluribus unum: “out of many, one” – the motto of the United States
  • status quo: the existing condition or state of affairs
  • Caveat Emptor: “let the buyer beware” – the principle that the seller of a product cannot be held responsible for its quality unless it is guaranteed under a warranty
  • tabula rasa: “blank slate” – a mind not yet affected by experiences, impressions, etc; anything existing undisturbed in its original state
  • ad nauseam: endlessly, to the point of nausea
  • carpe diem: “seize the day” – enjoy the day, take the opportunity
  • tempus fugit: “time flies”
  • bona fide: made or carried out in good faith; genuine; sincere
  • non sequitur: an idea or statement that does not follow logically from evidence
  • id est: “that is” – that is to say; in other words. Frequently abbreviated as i.e. (see last Friday’s post on i.e. and e.g.)
  • terra firma: “solid ground” – often used when referring to being back on land after traveling by boat or air.
  • vox populi: “the voice of the people” – popular opinion or sentiment
  • ad hoc: for a specific purpose or situation; improvised – outside the usual routine. For example, an “ad hoc” project at work would be something you are not normally assigned to do.
  • magnum opus: the greatest work of an artist, writer, or composer; masterpiece
  • persona non grata: an unacceptable or unwelcome person
  • quid pro quo: “this for that” – something given in exchange for something else
  • modus operandi: “Mode of operation” – the typical or usual way of doing something
  • mea culpa: “my fault” – an acknowledgment of error or guilt

Further reading: Daily Writing Tips (this site doesn’t tell you what language the phrases come from, but many of them are obvious and at least it gives decent definitions).