Friday - - Mind Games -

In 1918, Cor­nell Univer­sity English pro­fes­sor Wil­liam Strunk pri­vately pub­lished The El­e­ments of Style for the use of his stu­dents, who gave it its nick­name, “the lit­tle book”. In it Mr Strunk di­rected their at­ten­tion to a few es­sen­tials, the rules of us­age and prin­ci­ples of com­po­si­tion most com­monly vi­o­lated.

In his col­umn for The New Yorker on July 27, 1957, E B White (au­thor of Char­lotte’s Web and Stu­art Lit­tle) praised the “lit­tle book” as a “43-page sum­ma­tion of the case for clean­li­ness, ac­cu­racy, and brevity in the use of English.” (Two years later he was com­mis­sioned to re­vise it.)

Note the em­pha­sis on brevity. Both Strunk and White ask new writ­ers to re­visit their work and pare it ruth­lessly. By their dic­tum, there is no room for re­dun­dant phrases, tau­tol­ogy and pad­ding – and, if at the end of it not much re­mains, it means the writer didn’t have much to say in the first place.

What is it, in writ­ing and speech, that comes to us like sec­ond na­ture, which we fall back un­con­sciously upon for a sense of re­as­sur­ing fa­mil­iar­ity, and which we have so much dif­fi­culty in ex­pung­ing to tauten our lines? The cliché, of course – that trite word or phrase that has be­come overused to the point of ir­ri­ta­tion.

A cliché could also ap­ply to a hack­neyed se­quence of events done to death: think of a guest speaker promis­ing not to de­tain you, but be­ing obliged to say a few words given the aus­pi­cious­ness of the oc­ca­sion; a birth­day party where the cel­e­brant blows out the can­dles and cuts the cake while guests sing, fol­lowed by the oblig­a­tory feed­ing of one’s near­est with the first slice and have it rubbed all over their face. “Speech, speech!” any­one? To­day no one takes us se­ri­ously even if we sign off with ‘best wishes’ and ‘fond re­gards’ – too blasé and blah.

Ac­cess the site Clichésite.com and you’ll be amazed at the num­ber of phrases we’re all guilty of overus­ing. Just for fun I’ve tried to com­pose a pas­sage in al­pha­bet­i­cal or­der us­ing some: “As luck would have it, birds of a feather flock to­gether. But a chain is only as strong as its weak­est link… Dan­gle a car­rot in front of him, and a fool and his money are soon parted. Moral of the story: don’t count your chick­ens be­fore they’re hatched”.

And that’s only seven from among hun­dreds!

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