Thursday, December 6, 2012

There is Nothing Grammatically Wrong With a Trite Expression

Corbett said, “The price that writers pay for their use of trite language is the alienation of their readers. Readers stop paying attention. Writers may have something new and important to say, but if their message is delivered in threadbare language, they will lose or fail to capture the attention of their readers.” Trite expressions are certain combinations of words or certain figures of speech that have been used so often that they have lost their freshness and even their meaning for most readers. 

There is nothing grammatically or idiomatically wrong with a trite expression. A trite expression is stylistically objectionable – mainly because it is a tired expression. Whether an expression is tired is, of course, a relative matter. What is lack-luster for some readers may be bright-penny new for others.

Below are samples of trite expressions in bold – they may be new and fresh for new readers no matter how old and overused they are such as:
  • I returned from the picnic tired but happy, and that night I slept like a dog.
  • My primary objective in coming to college was to get a well-rounded education.
  • Convinced now that drugs are a temptation for young people, the community must nip the problem in the bud before it runs rampant.
Trite Expressions can be Revised

Figures of speech are prone to staleness. Metaphors like “nip in the bud”, “slept like a dog” were once fresh and cogent. Now they are wilted from overuse. Trite combinations of words like “tired but happy”, “runs rampant” produce glazed-eyed readers. Ironically, one of the ways in which to revise sentences that have trite language is to use the most familiar, ordinary language.

In sample 1 sentence would be improved if the but happy part of the combination were dropped and if a simple adverb were substituted for the simile like a dog.
  • I returned from the picnic tired, and that night I slept soundly.
Look at what happens to the yawn-producing well-rounded education in sample 2 sentence if revised to -
  • My primary objective in coming to college was to get a well-squared education.
If one makes an effort to invent his own figures of speech, he may produce awkward, strained figures, but at least they will be fresh. Instead of borrowing the hackneyed metaphor nip the problem in the bud, he can make up his own metaphor. In sample 3 sentence it can be revised like -
  • Convinced now that drugs are a temptation for young people, the community should excise the tumor before it becomes a raging cancer.
It takes a great deal of sophistication about language even to recognize trite expressions and those who do not read very much can hardly be expected to detect tired language because almost all the expressions that they encounter are relatively new to them. They may have to rely on others to point out the trite language in their prose.

Sources of facts and other info: Choices and Conventions by Edward P.J. Corbett

Read also my other published articles:

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