Three Rhetorical Curiosities

When it comes to English usage, informed writers are watchful about special cases. They can be traps for the unwary, or opportunities to enhance expression. Or they can be simply fun with words. This page gives you an example of each:

  • The pleonasm (also tautology), which should be avoided;
  • The oxymoron, which, if used creatively and correctly, can help a writer enrich the way he or she makes a point;
  • The palindrome, which is almost always just a plaything, not a serious tool for expressive writing; however, it is interesting, and something all good writers should know about.

You may never study these phenomena in school, but they illustrate the rich variability of language and thought, at least to someone who speaks his or her language with the brain engaged.

Pleonasms and Tautologies

Examples of pleonasmsA pleonasm is a word or phrase that uses more words than necessary. It is a special kind of verbosity. In serious writing, it is important to avoid them, as they reflect poorly on the writer, casting him or her as someone trying to add ballast to weak or shifty prose. Spotting them is an enjoyable sport for many. Here are several examples. The redundancies in these pleonasms should be obvious:

sudden impulseall impulses are sudden
free giftall gifts are free
boat marinamarinas by definition moor boats
fellow colleaguea colleague is on the same side as you are
exact replicareplicas are exact copies
necessary essentialsif not essential, not necessary
mass exodusan exodus is a departure of a great number
completely destroyeddestruction is always complete
foreign importsall imports come from foreign places
temper tantruma tantrum is a fit of temper
coequalsequals need no "co-" designation
honest truthif not honest, it isn't truth
warn you in advancecan't warn anyone after the fact
future plansplans are always for the future
over-exaggerateexaggeration implies excessive description
common bondbonds only apply to two or more in common
new innovation or initiativeall innovations and initiatives are new
sum totaltotals are sums
extra bonusbonuses are extra
nape of the neckonly necks have napes
false pretenseall pretenses are false
frozen tundraall tundra is frozen
gnashing of teethgnashing means grinding of teeth
head honchoa honcho is the head, the leader
veer off courseveering, by definition, runs you off course
safe havenhavens, by definition, are safe
tuna fishall tuna are fish
evening sunsetall sunsets come in the evening
close proximityproximity means closeness

Bar not open because it is closed
A tautology and a pleonasm: do you see them?

Related to the pleonasm is the rhetorical tautology. Text is tautological if a concept is repeated in it, using different words. For example, in “Take a Pew,” one of the routines in Beyond the Fringe, Alan Bennett says: “Perhaps I can paraphrase that; that is, say the same thing in a different way” (from The Complete Beyond the Fringe (1993) edited by Roger Wilmut). His very utterance is not only an example of a tautology, it is the definition of one. (Distinguish the rhetorical tautology from the logical tautology, useful in mathematics: a statement which, by virtue of its logical form or the words employed, must be true, as in “x = x”.)

Here are some more examples of rhetorical tautologies:

He’s a beginner who has just started.
I will attend personally.
Joe made it for his mom with his own hands.
I saw it with my own eyes
I will give your suggestion top priority.
Let us visit the dilapidated (or destroyed) ruins.
The building was totally and completely uninhabitable.
Let me give you an abbreviated summary of the plan.
She made predictions about the future.
Arizona contains some dry desert.
In my opinion, I think it will rain today.
The hurricane made landfall at 5 a.m. in the morning.
Children, take turns, one after the other.
A college degree is a necessary requirement for graduate school.
His photo was taken at the summit on the top of Mount Lincoln.
James was the victim of bad misfortune.
Kimmy is a brown-haired brunette.
His Spanish was adequate enough for ordering tacos.
Mark Twain published an autobiography of his own life.
Please prepay in advance for the tickets.

Be careful, too, about acronyms (letter abbreviations). They can spawn tautologies, too. For example:
DVD diskthe second “d” stands for “disk”
GPS systemthe “s” stands for “system"
PIN numberthe “n” stands for “number”
Please R.S.V.P.the “svp” is French for “please” – “s’il vous plait”
RAM memorythe “m” stands for “memory”
UPC codethe "c" stands for code
VIN numberthe "n" stands for number


Oxymorons are seriously funnyUnlike pleonasms and tautologies, which add unneeded description or specification to a term, oxymorons provide detail that at first glance appears to conflict with the concept being mentioned. In short, an oxymoron is an expression that appears to contradict itself.

The Greek roots are “oxy-“ meaning sharp, pointed or (by extension) smart; and “-moron” meaning soft, dull (and by extension) stupid. Thus, the word is autological – it is itself an illustration of the very situation that it defines. Incidentally, the correct plural of “oxymoron” is “oxymora,” but that has fallen so far out of use that we must concede that it is acceptable to give them their English “s” instead.

True Oxymorons.

examples of oxymoronsStrictly speaking, the contradiction in an oxymoron should be merely apparent, but not actual. This creates a sense of intellectual tension in the reader, who then must resolve the underlying meaning in the figure of speech. In this regard, it is much like a metaphor, which makes sense only once the reader can draw the parallel that the author had intended between two disparate thoughts.

A common example of a true oxymoron comes from one of George Carlin’s well-known comedic routines: jumbo shrimp. He asks, “Big shrimp, or little jumbo?” A more literary example is Hamlet’s plan to feign insanity: “I must be cruel only to be kind.” Recall the famous line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: In Act II, Scene 2, Juliet says to Romeo, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

Another classic collection of oxymorons is found in the first few lines of A Tale of Two Cities. This introduction uses these phrases as figures of speech, clearly for literary effect:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . .

In the poem, “My Heart Leaps Up,” William Wordsworth expressed his belief that we are born in harmony with nature, but then lose touch with it as we age. He said, “The child is the father of the man.”

Ash tray with no smoking sign in it
Can you resolve this one?

The essence of a true oxymoron is that there must be some resolution, some logic, behind the seeming conflict of terms. Thus, the oxymoron gives us a chance for an insight by calling upon us to solve what seems to be a contradiction. We are asked to discover the poetical or figurative sense of the statement that reconciles the conflict and reveals a truth.

For example, in the Wordsworth quote — “the child is the father of the man” — the resolution is this: He believed that we inherently know much of nature before we are born, but then we lose it as we age, as the world corrupts the purity of our natural state. This reverses the usual course of maturation. It is knowledge of nature that Wordsworth valued, not worldly know-how. (He wrote, “One impulse from a vernal wood may teach you more of man, Of moral evil and of good, than all the sages can.” (from “The Tables Turned”).)

Doré: Satan speaks with Sin and Death
Gustav Doré has illustrated “darkness visible.” Here, Satan speaks with Sin and Death

Another example comes from Paradise Lost, in which Milton describes the underworld, to which Lucifer fell. He called it “darkness visible.” There is no light in Hell (as light is synonymous with God, and Hell is defined by the absence of God), but (somehow) its occupants could find their way around. (This example is even more interesting when one considers that the poet himself was blind.)

Faux Oxymorons

Three categories of faux oxymorons or “almost-oxymorons” can be identified:

Real Contradictions

First, real contradictions are not oxymorons; they are nonsense. For example, being literal and describing the day as cold and hot creates a real contradiction. It is not a figure of speech; it is meaningless prose. Context will tell whether the contradiction is only apparent (and hence may carry an additional meaning in its resolution), or merely a meaningless combination of contradictory words.

Opinion Oxymorons
George Bush Center for Intelligence sign
Not a true oxymoron: just someone’s opinion or attitude

Second, some authorities use the term “opinion oxymoron” or “rhetorical oxymoron” to describe a contradiction not created by a clash of fact or definition, but rather by a person’s opinion or point of view. Thus, it is often reduced to being a snide remark or one-line joke and not a proper figure of speech. An example of an opinion oxymoron comes from George Carlin’s comedy routine mentioned above: “military intelligence.” This cannot be seen as an apparent contradiction unless one adopts a certain opinion about the military. “Legal ethics” is another such expression. An opinion oxymoron is more like a miniature editorial than figurative usage.

Dead Oxymorons

Good grief!Third, there is a category generically called “dead figures of speech.” Their usage has become so commonplace that modern speakers no longer even see them as figurative language. In the metaphor department, “falling in love” is a good example, as is “kick the bucket.” Consider “awful good,” “good grief,” and “barely clothed.” They are not oxymorons because evolved usage has wiped out what might have been, years ago, a sense of contradiction. “Civil war” is not an oxymoron, as “civil” is a different lexical usage from the one that would produce a contradiction. In the same vein, the word “preposterous” means absurd. Its Latin origin is “prae-“ (before) and “-posterus” (coming after). It has been used in English for hundreds of years without any conscious appreciation that it is an oxymoron, with the result that the contradiction it contains has become invisible to moderns.

Thus, as a technical matter, we can exclude real contradictions, opinion oxymorons and dead oxymorons. Even so, we still have a large and rich bounty of this figure of speech in English.

Other Contradictions

Contradictions in terms other than oxymorons do exist. Consider these three types:

No pets allowed all pets must be on leash

Antinomy (an-TIN-oh-me). This one is tough. It can easily sweep you into college-level philosophy and mathematics if you’re not careful. Antinomy is the description of a contradiction between two statements or rules that seem equally plausible or equally proven. (Do not confuse it with “Antimony,” which is a metal element.)

A whimsical example is the apparent conflict between two Biblical statements: “Thou shalt not steal” and “The Lord helps those who help themselves.”

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant provides three examples of real conflicts between sensible, acceptable rules or propositions. He states these rules and then provides proofs of both the thesis and the antithesis of each. That is what makes them antinomies. Here is one of them: Consider “Every phenomenon has at least one natural cause.” In other words, all things in nature are determined (that is, “caused”) by at least one natural law. This seems a reasonable concept. But Kant also demonstrates that there is freedom in nature. That also seems to make sense. But if there is freedom in the universe, how can all phenomena be determined by one or more natural causes? A phenomenon (including you) can’t be both determined and free.

Paradox. A paradox is an internally inconsistent statement or set of statements. The classic example comes from Epimenides (c. 600 BC) who wrote, “All Cretans are liars.” It becomes a paradox if you are told that Epimenides himself was a Cretan. Another classic illustration: Take a sheet of blank paper and write on it: “The statement on the other side of this paper is false.” Then do the same thing on the other side of the paper. Try to reconcile the two statements (without turning the paper over several times, if possible). It can’t be done. A more compact version of the same point: “This is a false statement.” This proposition cannot be true, or else it is false. And if it is false, it cannot be true, so it must be true. Thus, it can be neither true nor false.

Oscar Wilde famously said, “I can resist anything except temptation.” That is a paradox, too.

All animals are equal but some are more equal than othersA famous paradox can be found in Animal Farm. George Orwell created this statement for the farm: “All animals are equal; but some are more equal than others.”


War is Peace poster from 1984Falsehood. A falsehood is a contradiction or allegation that cannot be resolved, either literally or figuratively. It is not necessarily a lie: the verb “to lie” implies something about the intentions of the utterer. Three famous falsehoods come from George Orwell’s novel 1984: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”


As we have seen, oxymorons and other contradictions can be complex and stretch the intellect. This is not true of palindromes. Unlike the previous two, which deal with ideas and concepts, palindromes deal simply with the spelling of words. They are easy.
A palindrome is a word or phrase that reads the same, whether you read it from left to right or reversed, from right to left. (In Greek, “palin-” is a word fragment meaning “again”; “-drome” is a word fragment related to running. (“Palindromos” in Greek means “running back again.”) Examples are “radar” and “rotator,” as they read the same, whether forwards or backwards.

comic strip of Adam speaking to EveA famous palindrome is the mythical first utterance of Adam to Eve: “Madam, I’m Adam.”

Napoleon on shores of Elba
Napoleon at Elba

Another very popular one has been whimsically attributed to Napoleon: “Able was I ere I saw Elba. ” (The reader should know that Napoleon, defeated in 1814, abdicated and went into exile on the Isle of Elba in the Mediterranean. Eight months later he escaped and re-established his armies, which led to the denouement of the Napoleonic era, four months later, at Waterloo.)

King drinking lager
Regal lager

More modern, and somewhat less well-known palindromes include:

  • A slut nixes sex in Tulsa
  • Lager, sir, is regal.
  • Live, O Devil, revel ever! Live! Do evil!
  • Name not one man.
  • Nurse, I spy gypsies! Run!
  • Was it a bat I saw?

Me and Julio, Down by the School Yard

Me and Julio
Me and Julio on “Sesame Street”

Paul Simon’s song, “Me and Julio, Down by the School Yard,” demonstrates by its title that neither “Julio” nor “I” spent very much time inside the school building. The phrase has an error, arguably two; do you see them?

The first one is covered elsewhere: “Me” probably should be “I.” Why? Because “I” is used for subjects, and “me” is used for objects. From this fragment of a title, we don’t know whether this pronoun is part of a subject or of an object inside the lyrics. Normally, when a pronoun is mentioned in isolation (that is, outside of its grammatical context), the common practice is to put it in the nominative (or “subject”) case. If you disagree, you have the benefit of the song itself, in which the full phrase, mentioned several times,  is “Seein’ me and Julio down by the school yard.” That would confirm the use of “me” rather than “I.”

[Some people are so afraid of making the “I/me” mistake that they say “I” all the time, even when it is wrong. Don’t say, for example, “Seein’ Julio and I.” That is every bit as mistaken as “Julio and me were seen.”]

The second error is not so debatable. It has to do with the order used: Always mention yourself last when naming a series of persons. If your ego tempts you to put yourself first, just think of it as “climactic order,” in which the best is saved for last.

This rule also applies to the first person plural, “we.” The need for “we” in a series is fairly rare, so it sounds odd: “Julio and we were down by the school yard.” Nonetheless, it is correct. Most moderns would say, “Julio was down by the school yard with us,” and that is also correct.

Some authorities say that this is not a rule of grammar, but rather, a rule of rhetoric. In other words, the formal structure of the language does not require that the first person pronoun be last in a series; however, failure to do so is universally considered to be bad form in both American and British English.

Hey, it’s OK to have grammatical mistakes in poems and songs, especially if the usage contributes to the rhyme, rhythm or context. You would not expect two kids down in a California school yard, doing something that was “against the law,” to be concerned with correct syntax!

In all events, you should avoid constructions like “Me and so-and-so . . . ” not only because it is wrong, but also because it is a “social marker” (like “ain’t”): it exposes your inability (or unwillingness) to speak correctly. Usually, that’s the wrong impression you wish to make on other persons.

By the way, “you” also has a role in this rule. First, mention all of the third person nouns and pronouns; then go to the second person (“you”); and then end up with the first person pronoun. For example, instead of saying “You and Julio were down by the school yard,” start off with “Julio and you.” If you mention yourself, too, add it at the end: “Julio, you and I were down by the school yard.”

Know How to Be Intense

Be Mindful of Your Intensifiers

English has a category of adverbs called “intensifiers.” When attached to an adjective, most of them make the meaning of the adjective more intense (hence their name). Here is a short list: very, really, rather and quite. There are others, which fit into the traditional adverb role, but function as intensifiers nonetheless: Examples: overwhelmingly, unusually, uncommonly.

A few intensifiers might seem to be misnomers because they take away impact from the adjective instead of adding to it: Examples: pretty, fairly, a little, a bit, somewhat.

Consider this sentence:dagwoodsandwich

The sandwich looks delicious.

Now repeat the sentence to yourself six times, each time adding one of the following intensifiers to “delicious”: very, really, rather, quite, fairly, pretty. Ask yourself which one gave the warmest endorsement, and which sentences seemed tepid.

Some Tips

In general: When writing, avoid intensifiers if possible. Try to think of an adverb that more precisely communicates the trait in question. Intensifiers are, by their nature, vague. Good writing is the opposite of vague; it is precise.

Awfully, Terribly & Frightfully: These words used to mean something related to “awful” (scary in the sense of causing awe) and “terrible” (causing fright). “Frightfully” is used as an intensifier, too, mainly in British English. (Example: “Frightfully kind of you to come.”) Try not to use them in phrases that involve things we like; reserve them (if at all) for things we do not want to praise.

“Pretty” started out as slang and has hung around American English for centuries. Even so, it is still considered very informal, and is best avoided in formal writing. After all, it means “attractive in a delicate way,” something short of “beautiful.” As an intensifier, it is ambiguous: some use it to be a synonym of “very,” while others use it to mean “not very.” It has come to mean “moderately.”

I’m quite lost!

Quite” means “completely,” even though many speakers use it to mean “very.” Thus, phrases like “quite so” and “quite lost” mean “completely true” and “completely disoriented.” Do not use it with adjectives that have no gradations of meaning, like “unique” or “dead.” “Quite dead” is nonsensical.

Fairly” is a lukewarm intensifier. In olden times, “fair” meant “good looking, pleasant,” as in a fair-haired child or fair weather. But nowadays, like “pretty,” it has fallen into the middle between good and bad. For example, a “fair grade” is a “C”, not an “A” or a “B.” “Fair-to-middling” means of moderate or medium size, strength or quality.

Really” has a common heritage with “very.” (Both started out as words meaning “in truth.”) Children often use it repeatedly, as in “really, really, really cold.” Yes, it is a useful intensifier, and one of the strongest ones; still, in all, if you use instead a solid and precise adverb, your writing and speaking would have greater impact and be easier to understand.

rather drunk
Rather drunk?

Somewhat,” “a little,” and “a bit” dilute the meaning of the adjective to which they are attached. So does “rather,” except that sometimes it can mean “very” instead. Often, one of these intensifiers is employed for irony or understatement. For example, “He was rather drunk.” We can not tell if this means “a little” drunk or “very” drunk. You need to size up the speaker and the context to find your way here. The British use “rather” much more in the sense of “very” than do we Americans.

Rhetorical Standards

Rhetoric is the skill of using words efficiently, correctly and effectively. Rhetorical standards, then, relate to precision, concision, correctness and efficacy.


TargetA characteristic of English is that it has grown mightily through the importation of countless phrases from other languages to fill gaps in the lexicon. Ironically, the best term in English for the precise word or phrase that fills the requirement of the occasion is “le mot juste” (French for “the exact word.”)

Well, whether you are speaking or writing, your quest should always be for  “le mot juste” and not for just any vagabond word that seems to be at hand.

One such vagabond word, always at hand, is “get.” As a verb, it can mean just about anything: become (get fat), obtain (get an education), repair to (“get thee to a nunnery”), buy (get a new car), arrive (get home), mount (get on a bike), begin (get going), earn (get $8.50 an hour) and much, much more. Without exception, there will always be a more precise verb at hand than “get.”

Clear communication requires, then, the use of the most precise word or term available. As compared with approximate words (like “get” or “thing”), the specific and correct term will be more efficient in expression and more accurate in capturing verbally and communicating exactly what you are thinking.

Precision requires vocabulary. To build it, you should read; that is, read material that will improve your command of vocabulary, not degrade it. You also need to become a “looker-upper.” When you come across a new word, look it up right then. If you left your iPad at home, make a note of it on paper for later. You know, “paper” — that stuff we used to write things on in the old days?

Now, if you are really poor in the vocabulary department, you might think that a fairly common word is obscure, just because you don’t know what it means. That’s not the test! If you are so inclined, download Alan Beale’s word lists. It’s free. His “6 of 12” list contains 32,153 words, which includes words listed in at least 6 of the 12 source dictionaries of American English that he used. (Archaic, scientific-technical and all but widely-used slang are not included.) If the word is in that list, you probably should set about to learn it. (For example, “obsequious” is in the “6 of 12” list, but not “obsequy” (the noun form). That is found, however, in the “2 of 12” list.)

Having command of vocabulary does not imply using long words and high-sounding vocabulary just for show. On the contrary, competent communication requires simplicity — as much as the subject matter can permit. Famous leaders known for their communications skills did not use obscure words; they used simple words, and their speech was direct and specific. In short, their language was precise.

Cesar Chavez

Likewise, be advised: Do not blithely consider all educated speech as acceptable rhetoric. Much academic communication should receive a failing grade. Often it is turgid, prolix and pompous. A good education provides no guarantee of clarity, neither of thought nor expression. Conversely, some uneducated speakers intuitively understand how to reach an audience. For example, Cesar Chavez, who helped to create the United Farm Workers in California, was an enormously effective speaker; yet he left school in 7th grade to work in the fields, so that his mother would not have to.


Wm. Shakespeare

Economy with words is also a rhetorical standard. “Prolixity” is speaking or writing that uses an excess of words. Other antonyms of “concision” are: “verbosity” “wordiness,” grandiloquence” and “expatiation.” Concise language is also called “succinct,” “clear” and “plain language.” In Hamlet, Shakespeare ironically put the following now-famous phrase in the mouth of the wordy Polonius: “… brevity is the soul of wit … .”

Examples of prolixity:

  • There is [a song] that [I would like to play].” Remove the dependent clause and just say [I would like to play a song]; that is, eliminate “there is” and “that,” converting the statement to a simple sentence.
  • “Due to the fact that . . . ” is both wordy and pompous. Just say “Because . . . “.
  • “At this point in time . . . ” is also wordy and pompous; just say “now.”
  • “Perhaps I can paraphrase that, that is, say the same thing in a different way . . . ” (no need to be repetitive).

The use of passive voice is a standard path to prolixity. Avoid it for its own sake:  Active writing is more vivid and motivating than passive writing. But avoid passive writing also because  it uses at least two more words than does active voice: the passive participle and the preposition of agency. (For example, compare “I shot the sheriff” with “The sheriff was shot by me.”)


correctnessA “barbarism” in this context is the use of an incorrect pronunciation, word or phrase. “Barbarous” means “crude.” The ancient Greeks called their Turkish neighbors “barbars” (βαρβαρος) because their language sounded like so much “blah-blah-blah” to them. (In Greek, this must have been “bar-bar-bar.”) Today, verbal barbarisms are deviations from standard usage in the choice of words.

Here are some examples:

  • Please loan me some money (“loan” is a noun; “lend” is the verb).
  • The reason why this happened is because . . . (“The reason is that . . . ” or “This happened because . . . ” but not both.)
  • Don’t pay me no nevermind. (“double negative and confusion of “mind” and “nevermind”)
  • Answering the question “How are you?” with “I am good.” (“Good” means, among other things, well-behaved and competent. “Well” as an adjective means “healthy.” The answer “good” makes no sense, whereas “well” is responsive to the question.)

Some authorities include imports from foreign languages as barbarisms (like “le mot juste!”), even though they may be widely accepted today. Other foreign-source imports remain as barbarisms, such as the many Pidgin words and phrases brought back from the Orient by GI’s (Example: “no can do”).

Everyone seems to agree that barbarisms are inevitable. One authority notes that good writers may be able to use them effectively (and hence, forgivably); however, even if a bad writer studiously avoids them, that alone will not improve his writing.

Like “barbarism,” a “solecism” is an error of language, but it is thought to be more a question of syntax (as in “Them are good!”) than in word use. Good writers can also use solecisms on occasion and to good effect, but the rhetorical standard is, as in the case of barbarisms, to avoid them.


3D person walking on curved arrow isolated over a white backgroundAn effective writer or speaker is one who accomplishes the purpose of the communication. If the writer’s aim is to persuade, then efficacy means “persuasive.” If the objective was to create sympathy or sadness, then efficacy means successfully jerking tears. If the purpose of the writing or speaking is to teach, then efficacy means that the readers or audience actually learn the intended lesson. This is not mysterious; however, many writers/speakers become so wrapped up in their own florid prose that they forget the basic aim of the project.

As a matter of tactics and technique, a good writer/speaker should make clear to the target audience what his or her purpose really is. (Occasionally an author may wish to assert a surface objective, while in truth pursuing hidden agenda; but that is not honest writing or speaking; it’s disingenuous.)

Photo of Warten G. Harding
Warren G. Harding

Sometimes a writer/speaker is his own worst enemy in forging an effective communication. Pomposity does not only obscure meaning, it renders the message ineffective because the target audience becomes distracted by the style. Often, pomposity is simply a smoke screen to obscure the fact that the speaker has little or nothing to say. Famously, William Gibbs McAdoo, a Democratic senator and political opponent of then (Republican) President Warren G. Harding, described Harding’s grandiloquence as “an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.”

From here, you might want to visit the following:

Precision and Accuracy in Word Choice
Mannerisms to Avoid
Clichés: A Pet Peeve

Mannerisms to Avoid

  1. “Like”

    Valley girl, and, like, proudDo you know a person who, like, inserts a word, like every time she, like, tries to say something? “Like” should be extirpated from your speech — whether formal or informal. It is nonsense, and it makes the speaker seem to be very, very stupid and immature. If you are not stupid, why would you ever want to appear to be, especially in such a stupid way? When used as in the example above, “like” takes the place of “er” or “um,” neither of which is very elegant. Both, however, are preferable to “like.”

    The “like” mannerism also infests the verbs “to be” and “to say,” as in “He asked me out, and I was like ‘I doan wanna go out.’ And then he was like all pathetic.” If you have been to school you should know better than to speak this way.

  2. “Kinda”

    Some people kinda decorate their speech with needless “kinda’s” as a way of softening what they really are trying to say. They don’t want to be pinned down, so instead of saying “It looks like rain,” they say “It kinda looks like rain.” “Kinda” is meaningless. If it’s worth saying, it’s not “kinda worth saying,” so just go to the point and take a risk. If you want to fudge, use “might,” the perfectly good word in English that expresses uncertainty.

  3. “Real quick”

    Speaking of fudging, you will hear from time-to-time the “real quick” fudge: “Can I ask you a question real quick?” Usually, “real quick” does not mean “really quickly” (the grammatically correct way of saying it), but rather, it is an afterthought to try (lamely) to persuade the person being asked that whatever-it-is will not take up very much time. Of course, both parties know that it is not a promise to be quick, neither is it an indirect apology for taking up another person’s time. It is a fudge. Don’t say it; but if you do, at least be aware that it is a mannerism, and probably an insincere remark.

  4. “See what I’m sayin’?”

    This mannerism is in the same category as “Know what I mean?” and “You know.” The truth is, it is just filler talk, uttered more by habit than by thinking, and designed to make some sort of noise while you figure out what (if anything) you are going to say next. A few speakers do ask, “Do you follow me?” or “Do you understand?” and they are being thoughtful and sincere; but mainly, the “see what I’m saying” crowd is just headed off in a slangy direction with little or no content.

Clichés: A Pet Peeve

(Subtitle for this post: “Avoid Clichés Like the Plague”)

Pet peeve” is a cliché. “Pet” in this context must mean “favorite.” But “peeve” is an irritation, annoyance, vexation, or exasperation. In context, it usually means something that most frequently annoys or is most frequently noticed; yet, the first word suggests preference, not frequency. It is a phrase that does not mean what it says. The irony is assuredly lost on most of those who resort to this expression.

“Peeve” is itself a fairly new word, fabricated from the adjective “peevish,” which means having an irritable disposition. If you think about it, “peeve” does not identify a “thing,” a “something” that irritates you; it describes you, or at least your attitude towards it.

Old Sneakers

Nevertheless, there is nothing inherently wrong with a cliché, any more than there is anything inherently wrong with wearing an old pair of sneakers: Maybe they aren’t the prettiest, nor the most functional, but they work — more or less.

The problem with clichés is that they encourage your reader or listener to stop thinking, in much the same way that you stop driving very attentively when you turn onto a familiar street.

Avoiding clichés is a tactic for making what you say more interesting for your reader or audience. Clichés, by their very nature, are dull, banal and unoriginal. They suppress thought rather than stimulate it. Good writing and speaking is creative and expressive. Frequent lapses into clichés create a style of communication that seems immature, sophomoric.

An adage

If clichés contain accepted wisdom, they are called “adages” or “proverbs,” and are then graduated into a more respectable category.

Personally, I prefer to limit the term “cliché” to trite, hackneyed banalities, and not to folk expressions or aphorisms, which actually have some content for the mind.

Here are two examples:

  • Pride goeth before a fall.
  • Diamond in the rough.

Pride goeth before a fall” is not a cliché; it’s a proverb. “Diamond in the rough” is a cliché. A long time ago it was a creative way of describing a person, but now, it’s all worn out.

Of course, one generation’s insight can become the next generation’s cliché. Therefore, context will help to guide you in deciding when a string of words is so familiar that it should be abandoned.

Here are a few examples of clichés — phrases that you probably should never write or utter without a wink.

Can't fix stupid
Can’t fix stupid

all’s fair in love and war
as old as the hills
avoid [something] like the plague
beat around the bush
bring home the bacon
can’t fix stupid
dead as a door-nail
give 110 percent
gut-wrenching (as applied to pain)
handwriting on the wall
head over heels in love
in the nick of time
love at first sight
low hanging fruit
pot calling the kettle black
read between the lines
scared out of my wits
thick as thieves
think outside the box
time flies when you’re having fun
time will tell
tip of the iceberg
to tell the truth . . .
well-worn (as applied to a cliché)
what goes around comes around
wrong side of the bed

iolantheAs an extra bonus, here are the lyrics to Gilbert and Sullivan’s platitude song from Iolanthe (premiered in 1882). Though it was written over a century ago, the clichés are still very recognizable, even for Americans:

If you go in, You’re sure to win –
Yours will be the charming maidie:
Be your law the ancient saw,
“Faint heart never won fair lady!”

Every journey has an end –
When at the worst affairs will mend –
Dark the dawn when day is nigh –
Hustle your horse and don’t say die!

While the sun shines make your hay –
Where a will is, there’s a way –
Beard the lion in his lair –
None but the brave deserve the fair!

Nothing venture, nothing win –
Blood is thick, but water’s thin –
In for a penny, in for a pound –
It’s Love that makes the world go round!