On the first day of class, my twelfth grade AP English teacher handed out a list of wordy phrases that she claimed would result in an automatic F if included in any paper handed in. The usual suspects made the list, including such standby fillers as “due to the fact” (she preferred because) and “whether or not” (there was no debate “or not” was unnecessary). That same year, I first encountered the advice to “omit needless words” in Strunk & White’s classic The Elements of Style — a manual of utilitarian writing style I’ve made a point to read at least annually ever since.
Now there’s a new tool in reporters’ arsenal to keep the clichés at bay. Just as People of Walmart made me double check my attire before leaving the house to go shopping, and Cake Wrecks made it irresistible to walk past a bakery without peeking at their wares… Now, Unnecessary Journalism Phrases has me reading news stories on a quest for tired turns of phrase.
As any journalist who writes every day can tell you, sometimes you don’t have the time to be short, or to be wholly original. Some phrases and idioms are useful because readers know what you mean without going to great lengths to explain or repeat yourself, or because even if they’ve been written before, they’re more fun to write than just the facts. You knew what I meant when I said “the usual suspects” right? Even though words can’t really stand trial and you’ve likely never been given a similar list.
On the flipside, what reader — and, if you’re honest with yourself, writer — hasn’t read a passage and rolled her eyes at some contrived, clichéd turn of phrase? The usual suspects probably also fits that bill. Guilty as charged. Oh, I’m a roll! … Err, third time’s a charm? You see where I’m going. Once in a blue moon (I’ll stop soon) such lapses are OK, but sandwiched against each other in the same paragraph, these colorful phrases dull the life out of even the vividest of sentences.
It requires vigilance to avoid these hackneyed phrases.
The Unnecessary Phrases tumblr helps by calling out reporters who contrive linguistic crutches and highlighting articles featuring the overused phrase du jour with links to recent offending articles — mostly from major news outlets. A sampling of recent entries:
- “Evolve over time”
- “Completely destroyed”
- “For all intents and purposes”
- “For what it’s worth”
- “A person familiar with the matter”
OK, so many of those aren’t just cliché but poor form. (Surely we can all agree it’s either destroyed or not, and likewise, necessary or not and unique or not?) While it’s probably impossible to completely eliminate clichés from your writing, this site should at least highlight some phrases you didn’t even realize everyone else was using.
YOUR TURN: What phrases turn you off when you’re reading a passage? Tell us in the comments or on Twitter @10000words.
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