Just Happens

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 time—I 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.