It is the cliché that most makes me grind my teeth. Seventy years after George Orwell attempted to eradicate cheap litotes with the sentence “a not unsmall dog chased a not unfrightened rabbit across a not ungreen field”, “It is…. that” makes me fall to my knees, sobbing Oh God!! NOOOO! WHY!!!!
From Prospect magazine: “It is Joanna Scanlan, as Catherine Dickens, who almost wordlessly conveys the true cruelties of Love”. “It is…who” adds nothing here. I first noticed it in my own writing. It is a way of providing emphasis to the subject of the sentence by making it the object of the verb to be. The trouble is that (pause- no, I have narrowly avoided it) this is a cheap way of emphasising, requiring no thought or creativity, and so it becomes addictive then omnipresent.
Just like Orwell’s cheap litotes. St Paul was a citizen of “no mean city”- the greatest in the World at the time- which carries a hint of menace, something to savour when you work it out. “Not un-” can be stuck in before any adjective.
I have hated the word “almost” since an adjudicator called my teenage performance of the Chopin C minor prelude “almost breathtaking”, offering me praise then snatching it away from under my nose. Either it is breathtaking or it is not. Prospect narrowly avoids that: one can indeed be almost wordless.
Listening in my mind to the rhythms of my sentences, I think of where to put the full stop, and where I can carry on the melody with a colon: for a colon inflects up, and a full stop irrevocably down. Too many colons: eg, here, ruin the effect. Psalms say the same thing twice, separated in English by a colon: saying it the second time, as lawyers often do, gets the idea over to more limited minds. One author I used to like made sentences longer than a page by making lists of clauses separated by semicolons. One Michael Moorcock novel had only one-clause sentences. They illustrated the closed-mindedness of the first-person narrator. It is tedious after a time.
“It is that,” agrees the Yorkshireman.
What clichés in writing set your teeth on edge?
Looking for an illustration- should I really use Orwell?- I started reading Clive James. He writes, Any successful style is a spell whose first victim is the wizard. Perhaps writers are better with our infelicities jerking you out of your mindless absorbing, so that readers question rather than idolise. But I could hardly wish that for myself.