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.
I think of one-line character descriptions for television scripts when I hear the phrase. «An acclaimed violinist and top-notch heart surgeon who just so happens to fight crime in his spare time.» It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard. The writer is telling me I should be surprised by the oh-so-clever and unusual combination that makes up this character. But it’s not strange at all; the writer made it that way on purpose. If the combination doesn’t make me think it’s odd or unusual, the writer should start over. If it does, the phrase is unnecessary.
Further, the phrase indicates an accidental nature to the final item in the list. Did the character wake up one day and suddenly realize that she fights crime? Probably not. Not only did the writer contrive the circumstance, presumably the character made an active decision to fight crime.
This post starts a new category in Vocab called Phrases to Avoid. In George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, Orwell admonishes writers of his time for failing to choose words for their meaning, but instead assembling popular phrases that sound good together because they’ve been repeated so often. Things have gotten much worse since Orwell’s timeI don’t even have to try hard to invent the voiceover for a movie trailer: «In a world where… nothing is as it seems… one man stands alone… against a sea of injustice… but this time, it’s personal.»
In Orwell’s essay he describes how it is easier for a lazy mind to assemble these phrases into seeming sentences than to choose individual words. Looking through my own writing and remembering my writing process I know that I’ve often been a writer with a lazy mind. This new category is here to help me identify some of the phrases I should purge from my vocabulary, whether they are pet phrases or pet peeves of mine.