Despite One Exception, Book Review Exemplifies Excellence in Writing

book-editingA colleague suggested I check out a book review that appeared in the Aug. 10, 2014, Wall Street Journal: It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliché. I consider it a must-have for my resource library.

However, because it hit my inbox on a Monday morning when I was in work mode, I also was seeing it through the eyes of a ruthless editor. My comments (and my italics):


  1. “You know what is meant, but the phrase gives you a moment of cognitive confusion that a careful writer or speaker will avoid when he can.”
  2. “You can’t help suspecting that the cliché-user isn’t thinking about what he is writing, or thinking it through.”

Were I a Wall Street Journal editor (Now, there’s a stretch!), I would suggest more gender-neutral phrasing. He no longer is an acceptable universal pronoun.


  1. You know what is meant, but the phrase gives you a moment of cognitive confusion that careful writers or speakers will avoid when they can.
  2. You can’t help suspecting that those who use clichés aren’t thinking about what they are writing, or they aren’t thinking it through.

Now that the arrow has been flung, I must add that there are plenty of positive examples of excellent writing. For example:

“Many clichés seem as if they’re making an argument but really aren’t.”

How many people would write: “Many clichés seem like they’re making an argument …”

“You can’t help suspecting that the cliché-user isn’t thinking about …”

I was interested in this use of hyphenation, as I often prefer to use a hyphen to express problem-solver, although it doesn’t appear in my trusted Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Yet theatergoer is listed there as one word. (Yes, the English language lacks consistency.)

“… even the most literate and circumspect among us can’t claim to be entirely cliché-free.”

This confirms that in this reviewer’s style, it’s correct — and I agree — to hyphenate a compound modifier that follows the verb to be.

The cliché “ax to grind” is rarely misused, according to the book’s author, so it gets a pass.

I learned today that ax can be spelled with either two letters or three: ax or axe.

Your Monday morning grammar lesson from this ruthless editor is complete!

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)