It's raining cats and dogs, with a 100% chance of cliches

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 2, 2012 - 4:02 PM

Imagine spending seven hours in a room with 30 or 40 attorneys. Actually, it's more fun than you might think.

That's what I'll be doing in Portland when I present a continuing legal education seminar for the Oregon State Bar. Contrary to popular opinion, many attorneys are excellent writers. They care about precise communication, they're intelligent and they're fun to work with.

One topic we'll discuss is figurative language -- both kinds, not just your everyday "tropes" or departures from literal meaning, as in "It's raining cats and dogs" and "Your argument flies in the face of reason," but also "schemes" or departures from normal word order, as in anastrophe or inversion ("Ask not..."), anaphora or repetition at the beginning of successive clauses ("I have a dream that one day...") and epistrophe or repetition at the end of successive phrases ("government of the people, by the people and for the people").

Like everyone else, attorneys live in a world of jargon and poor usage, and sometimes they get sloppy, despite their commitment to precise expression.

Here's an exercise we'll do to help them be discriminating in their word choice. It involves determining which clichés are imprecise or in some way inappropriate, and which add clarity and emphasis despite their being overused.

First, underline the clichés in the following sentences. Then cross out the ones you think don't work, and circle the ones you think serve a purpose.

1. To argue that the defendant was not only denied a phone call but also spoken to disrespectfully is to go from the sublime to the ridiculous.

2. When the accused confessed unexpectedly, both the prosecuting attorney and the defending attorney found themselves in the same boat.

3. Plaintiff alleges that the powers that be at the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry improperly denied him health and dental insurance coverage.

4. That a rate hike of this proportion would be disastrous for customers is a foregone conclusion.

5. Blissful ignorance of environmental regulations is no excuse for a callous disregard of the law.

To my ear, in sentence 2 in the same boat works well enough, and in sentence 4 a foregone conclusion, while not awful, probably should be rejected. The others definitely should go.

The point of sentence 1 is that, of the two purported actions, one is insignificant and one inconsequential, but going from the sublime to the ridiculous seems overstated. In sentence 3 the powers that be conveys a sense of paranoia or knee-jerk response to established authority.

In sentence 5 blissful ignorance and callous disregard have a nice ring (their parallel structure, a trope, creates a pleasing rhythm), but closer examination reveals that the two qualities are mutually exclusive. It isn't possible to simultaneously display blissful ignorance and callous disregard.

If as a writer you serve up one tired cliché after another, you're likely to bore your reader. When in doubt, replace a cliché with a trope of your own making, something novel and apt. In the words of Ezra Pound, "Make it new."

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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