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Can't you be less specific?

T
here are cliched expressions, and there are cliched writing techniques. (Some would include in the latter category the "There are x, and there are y" technique. Or the "Some would include" technique. Or the repetition of "or." Or the parenthetical aside. Somebody slap me.)

While it's a noble goal to rid writing of cliches, I'm not sure it's possible to be completely successful in doing so. Once you broaden the definition of "cliche" to include writing techniques (as you should), even conventional sentence structure starts to look like a cliche. It's been done before, right?

I think it's important, then, to sharpen your cliche-hunting focus and target phrases and techniques not just because they've been done before (very little has never been done before), but because they're especially tired or annoying. This isn't, to use a cliche, an exact science. I might be just fine with a certain technique in one piece of writing but be determined to zap it in another piece of writing.

One currently popular device that I think deserves a wary eye is what I have dubbed the smirkingly specific example. You've encountered this device, I'm sure -- if not in actual writing, then in television and radio commercials. Its users (and I've been among them) consider it a tool of modernization. At one time it was. Now, at least to me, it increasingly comes across as self-consciously cute and annoying. (And when I think something is self-consciously cute, well . . .)

Here's a decidedly non-modern sentence:

Visitors sometimes tell boring stories.
Here's how the same idea looks after it's been through the Smirkingly Specific Modernizator®:

Tired of listening to Uncle Harry go on and on about his nose-hair collection?

You get the idea. This device isn't always so slapstick. Sometimes it's just a little more cutely specific than it should be. The genesis of this rant, in fact, was a very mild example I encountered at work -- something about "distance learning" being used by adults, not just eighth-graders. Of course, the writer didn't really mean to exclude sixth- and ninth- and other-graders; she was just trying to be a little cute. At one time I would have thought she had succeeded. Now I'm just a little tired of reading such things.

My brother Terence at the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Ariz., points to the conspicuous use of "that" and "those" as another hallmark of this device. Instead of instructing readers that a tidy car is a good thing, writers of the new school might harangue people whose cars they have never seen about "that McDonald's bag" or "those soda cans" cluttering their back seats. Terence notes that this kind of specificity renders writing inaccurate as well as silly: Most readers have neither an uncle named Harry nor a McDonald's-wrapper-littered car.


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