Phrases to Avoid

Hackneyed phrases that annoy me.

Complete and utter

Complete. Or utter.

I came across this in the first paragraph of an old post and cringed. First, «complete and utter» seems redundant. Perhaps it isn’t always; the two words have somewhat different definitions if very similar usage. It’s possible that one would want to specify both that something is not only totally whatever attribute is being ascribed, but that attribute in the most extreme manner.

I’m having trouble coming up with an example of that hypothetical, which leads me all the more to my original conclusion: this phrase is almost certainly redundant.


(When used as a verb) to transform a possession into a present by giving it to someone.

This holiday season Sears’s slogan is «how to gift.»

I know more than a couple people who share a pet peeve: the use of the word gift as a verb. They complain with good justification that it is common to turn a noun into a verb in place of choosing words with enough care that no made-up word would be necessary. Normally I’d be in agreement, but in the case of gift I’ve defended the usage.


Used to describe something, eg a situation, having attributes or events which preclude one another.

I can't fault the New York Times too much. After all, they were quoting what others said in yesterday's article Can a Playground Be Too Safe? about the effects of modern safety playground equipment on the emotional growth of children.

«Paradoxically,» the psychologists write, «we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.»


Bright and shining.

Yeah, «bright and shining» for a pretentious nincompoop in love with his thesaurus. In this case, Alan Dean Foster, who wrote the novelization of the movie Star Trek, where I found this word. Even worse than his use of this word where «radiant» would have worked was the context in which it was used. «Refulgent hopes». Are you kidding me? I used to like Alan Dean Foster, but now I wonder whether I liked his books because when I read them I was too young to know any better.

Just Happens

Usually used in place of «coincidentally» or «by the way».

I cringe almost every time I see this phrase, and especially hate «just so happens». It almost always indicates the writer attempting to congratulate her or himself on inventing something unexpected for the reader. It's very much like the false modesty of the supermodel saying, «oh, this old thing?» about the designer gown she wears.

The phrase, if used at all, should be used for genuine coincidence or serendipity: «The lack of the correct allen wrench was all that stood in the way of completing the repair. It just so happens that Roger carries a complete set wherever he goes. Who knew?» I still don't like it because it's such an overused phrase, but it fits.

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