George OrwellIt 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.

File:Tolstoy, from Gallica.jpgI 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.

9 thoughts on “Cliché

  1. I find my own bad habits terribly annoying. I minimize anything that relates to human feeling. I do it with perhaps, slightly, somewhat, a bit- anything that undermines the concept of emotion. I’ve been told that this is not my own construct, but cultural; As in, “We were going down the river in Kenya (pronounced Keen-ya, obviously), and an alligator bit my foot off, which was fine. The sheets at the lodge however, were dreadful. One would rather be tarred and feathered than ever have to sleep on sheets like that again (pronounced a-gay-n, obviously).


    • I found I could be terribly unsympathetic, because I demanded a lot of myself. I did not like others’ whingeing. As for my own feeling, I minimised it as “a bit” because if it was “a lot” that was overwhelming and, well, it would not do to be overwhelmed. I am not sure that the current position, where I sometimes am overwhelmed, is an improvement.

      When I get nervous, I talk posh like that. It can be useful to face someone down, where there is no possibility at all of violence.


  2. The only time things like that bug me is cliched office speak, often based on American sports, which is invariably over-used by ineffective idiots with nothing substantial to say. “Let’s touch base and square the circle because we’re all team players who think outside the box.” Cringe.

    But in general, I’m happy with cliches, grammatical errors, typos and spelling mistakes for many reasons. Number one is that I do them all them all the time. Number two is that linguistic snobbery is a tool of the upper classes to shaft anyone who didn’t go to Eton, and language should only be about communication. If somebody understands what you’re saying, it’s all good. (I’m planning a post about this that will be dedicated to Pink, who I see ‘correcting’ things he sees as errors on lots of posts, but I haven’t got round to doing it, and in any case I’m slightly afraid of him).


    • First, let me get my ducks in a row.

      What do you think of Politics and the English Language? In part, he calls for clarity of thought and expression: if you support Stalin’s show trials, believing that some should die for the good of the Revolution, say so clearly. Here are Orwell’s rules:
      (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
      (ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
      (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
      (iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
      (v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
      (vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

      For everyone there is a moment when you stop thinking about what is being said, and start condemning the way it is said- office jargon, ending a sentence with a preposition (Where’s your son at, Bitch?) or whatever. People who went to local comp then local Uni can object to informal language.

      No-one has picked up on the cliché of asking a question at the end of a post to elicit comments- or if they have, they haven’t said.


      • Oh jings, haven’t got round to that one, and I’d hate to disagree with anything Orwell says. It’s very Plain English campaign, which I totally agree with (or with which I’m in total agreement). But actually I think that’s only important if you’re a public organisation with a duty to communicate with everyone. If you’re writing for the sake of art, or the sake of argument, it should be whatever strikes you as appropriate. The snootiness of grammar snobs irritates me beyond measure because of the long history of the evolution of language, a communication tool, one of many forms, and not a science. My irritation with office speak is that it communicates nothing – except an empty head trying to waste everyone’s time. 🙂


  3. What I hate about my own writing … is how different it is when I’m writing away with passion or writing for the benefit of students. For example, I never allowed my students to use hyperbole … one is not very hungry, one is famished. On the other hand, one is not starving. Some people are, and it’s hardly pleasant. Mind you, our text books all identify the litote as an “English” issue … as if American English has bypassed the problem entirely (mind you, our own linguistic issues could rival the Great Soviet Encyclopedia.

    What puts my teeth on edge (and I’m guilty on it from time to time) is the totally useless and quite extraneous expression, “In my opinion, …” As I always say to students, it’s your essay … whose opinion would be if not yours?


    • I agree. I found myself writing “I think”, and cut it out, especially when I found it was a way of expressing doubt: “I think this, but others disagree”. Though- to others, it is an unexceptionable phrase: if you tell your students to cut it out, you may be exerting control over their writing, rather than improving it.

      If you are “starving” at lunchtime after a hearty breakfast, what are you after ten days on the life-raft in the ocean? Then again, now we use “awesome” as the French might “bien”, it has changed its meaning.

      But when you are talking face to face it is different. You can be starving, and everyone knows what you mean. We are joking or expressing enthusiasm, rather than talking of the serious subject of starvation, when our body-language would be different.


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