Why people don’t trust clever turns of phrase

On my personal blog Writing Boots last week, I rounded out an item on education by writing, “If there’s a job harder than educating the American child these days, it might be communicating about education with the childish American.”

One of the many replies I received was from a speechwriter: “I’d like to point out that the last sentence in your post is so smarty-pants perfect that you can almost see it turning into a cheesy cliche of itself even as it’s unfolding in your brain. Interesting trick.”

No. If that’s how the average reader perceived it, it’s a rhetorical failure, pure and simple.

When our rhetoric resorts to the tricky and the gimmicky, the danger is that the smart-asses in our audience—it takes smart-asses to know smart-asses—will silently call us on it, and find our intellectual integrity wanting.

“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

And the silent rejoinder comes: “Does that also mean, if you hate to plan, you plan to hate?”

People know that people with something serious to say don’t resort to linguistic trickery.

So we’d better use cheap tactics sparingly, or not at all.

—DM

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