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Main page » Coursebooks » Grammar » The Dictionary of Dos and Donts

The Dictionary of Dos and Donts


by Harry G. Nickles ... The Dictionary of DO'S and DON'TS is an indispensable companion for writers, students, speakers, editors, teachers, and all who care about saying what they mean and meaning what they say. Enjoyable to read and instructive to browse through, it is a sophisticated guide to the conquest of jargon, clumsy locutions, tired words and phrases, and hackneyed cliches. This zesty work on good and bad usage is a needed corrective to the misuse and abuse of language. It includes hundreds of examples of the faddish and the too familiar, and offers wise and often witty counsel on how to use the English language with freshness, vigor, clarity, and confidence. Entries include Back Formations, Barnyard Metaphors, Crackerbarrel Terms, Drone Words, Dumbstruck Expressions, Fossil Phrases, Null Sounds, Toy Words, Tranquilizer Cliches. The book is fully indexed for ready reference.

This book is meant to help every user of the English language to achieve a clear, uncluttered style. It carries two complementary appeals, one negative and one positive: do not encumber the natural grace of English with the uninspired expressions that encrust the speech and writing of the lazy and the ignorant; and try to make every sentence a fresh arrangement of words, free of faddish whimsy, mannerisms, inexact or worn-out metaphors, and the overworked locutions known as cliches.


Besides originality, good style requires clarity and economy. With these goals in mind, I urge the reader to avoid common offenses against logic or propriety (for example, between each), to recognize the windiness of circumlocution and learn how to deflate it (for example, by simplifying on a daily basis to daily or every day), to banish upstart words with twisted senses that destroy exactness (as in troop levels for troop strength), and even to question the sanctity of certain idioms (by and large is one, a relic from the days of sailing ships) that have become detached from their first meanings and make poor sense today.

Jargon, pedantry, pretentiousness, purism, vulgarity-these, too, are treated as spoilers of the language when they obtrude in the text. Nevertheless, this is not a book of technicalities or scholarly precepts. The reader is not forbidden to use a preposition to end a sentence with, or to ever split an infinitive. My chief purpose is to encourage an inventive choice of words to suit each thought as exactly as possible, and this has led me to assemble hundreds of hackneyed expressions-those stale, too familiar combinations or words that hamper the vitality of English like bad habits.


These cliches do not include, except incidentally, our teeming heritage of proverbs,which are commonplaces of folk wisdom too homely to compete with firsthand wording, nor our store of dull aphorisms and platitudes (such as Familiarity breeds contempt), many of which have bored mankind since the time of Aesop, nor the often tiresome parrotings from literature-a vast source of stock phrases, especially from the Bible (e.g., by the skin of one's teeth, taken from the Book of Job) and Shakespeare (e.g., to gild the lily, misquoted from King John).


Slang has also been excluded, but less firmly-excluded because most of its amusing indiscretions turn obsolete before they can be printed, yet selectively included because, once they have gained some popular acceptance, they resemble all other cliches in triteness, their vivacity and brashness lost through repetition: the joke about needing something like a hole in the head ceased to be funny at least two decades ago, and now only a dreary inelegance is left in the phrase.


Despite these exclusions, the reader will find here what I believe to be the greatest number of cliches ever to appear in one volume. Many others still infest the languagei ndeed, no single compilation can record them all-but enough examples are provided in these entries to support this valid warning: the more of them a writer or a speaker uses, the more his prose will lack originality and interest.

If any of my choices and interpretations should be assailed as arbitrary, I must answer that perhaps they are. Certainly some cliches are more stultified than others, and it is  the reader's right to evaluate each instance on his private scale of sensibility.  I will also admit that there are authorities on English who have kind words for the cliche, calling it by such endearments as "set phrase" and "literary convenience" and defending it as a short cut to quick understanding. I will admit further that every cliche condemned here can be used, and is used at times, by cultivated persons, especially in casual speech or for some deliberate effect. No language can be purged of stereotyped expressions-the title of this book proves that-but an effort to avoid them should be made by everyone who values literate discourse.

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Tags: Words, language, often, confidence, Entries, Dictionary, rsquo, clarity