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Banned for banality

Anyone with a passion for language has them -- those pesky words or constructions that turn your blood to at least a simmer, if not a boil. There are plenty of places to vent this frustration: talk radio, letters to the editor, the entire blogosphere and the Lake Superior State University List of Words to Be Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness.

This year’s list, the 34th annual collation, is heavily influenced by political fads: “maverick” is there, as are “first dude” and “bailout”. The environment has had its day for many, with “green” and “carbon footprint” leading the poll for overuse and annoyance value. I’m surprised that “working families” wasn’t included. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made the phrase so ubiquitous in 2008 that even Barack Obama’s speechwriters started to adopt it, a rare case of eastward cultural transmission across the Pacific.

Naturally, we can criticise the pundits and politicians for their inane phrases, but sometimes the truth hits a little closer to home. For book reviewers, even more so than book writers, clichés are an occupational hazard. Churning out a thousand words on a volume that failed to stir you in any way is a challenge – even books evoking passion can be hard to describe without falling back on stock phrases and comparisons.

Emre Peker at The Millions Book Review did a clever Google study of common phrases in book reviews. A quick Google search of my own work showed that I have so far been innocent of these particular banalities, but I have committed the NY Times’ sins of using “compelling” and “eschew” in reviews (“Seven Deadly Words of Book Reviewing”).

The danger is that once you are aware of your own clichés and idiosyncrasies, you can become shy of using almost any colourful phrase. A level of introspection is good for any writer, but crippling self-criticism does no one any favours.

Do your reviews and blog posts about books tend to use the same stock phrases? Do you scan through the thesaurus for an alternative to “incandescent”? Is there a good way of describing a second major work without using the word “sophomore”? What words are you keen to abolish?

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