Well-Turned Phrases
Victoria Grossack

In the March 2005 edition of Fiction Fix, my column discussed levels of structure in writing. I plan to work – gradually – through most of these levels with you, hoping to at least start you thinking about each level.

The third level from the bottom is the phrase (letters and words came before), and phrases are the focus of this article. But in this column we also start seeing interaction between the different levels of structure.

What Is a Phrase?

A phrase is somewhere between a single word and a complete sentence. To put it differently, a phrase implies couple of words which are next to each other. However, the word phrase has other nuances.

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, phrase derives from the Greek, phrazein, which means “to point out, explain, tell.” We can see the evidence of this meaning when we say: “How would you phrase that?” In a sense, all writing is caught up in that question: how do you tell your story?

Merriam-Webster gives five different definitions for the noun phrase. One of them deals with music, another with dance, and although applying music and movement to writing is appealing, we won’t cover those ideas in this article. The other three definitions are more relevant:

1: a characteristic manner or style of expression: DICTION

2 a : a brief expression; especially: CATCHWORD b: WORD

4 : a word or group of words forming a syntactic constituent with a single grammatical function <an adverbial phrase>

In this article we are concerned with definitions 2 and 4 – although how you create your brief expressions and grammatical units will greatly influence 1, your characteristic manner or style of expression. Note that if we are using definition 4, grammarians will insist that phrases don’t contain subjects and verbs.

Phrases Matter

Whatever the precise – or imprecise – definition, phrases, or putting words together to express thoughts, are important. The creation of phrases is the first sense of artistry that most writers experience while writing, as they make something where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Many people use phrases, as opposed to a single word or a complete sentence, to title their articles, stories and books. They often choose noun phrases such as The Goblet of Fire or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Occasionally titles will be more descriptive, such as Dead as a Doornail. Or, they may technically be sentences, such as He’s Just Not That Into You or The World Is Flat.

A great phrase can generate millions of dollars. Besides titles, there’s advertising. Consider: the quicker picker-upper (Bounty paper towels); All the news that’s fit to print (New York Times); Just do it (Nike); Let your fingers do the walking, (Yellow Pages); Finger lickin’ good (Kentucky Fried Chicken); and The antidote to civilization (Club Med). All of these phrases have helped imprint their products into the group consciousness of our civilization.

Parts of Speech

Traditionally, grammarians list eight parts of speech in the English language. They are: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, preposition, conjunction, article. The last four – pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and articles – don’t lend themselves well to creativity in phrase-making, but the first four parts of speech can and do. Here are examples:

Nouns: Instead of the dog, you could write, the well-pampered poodle

Verbs: Instead of drank, you could write noisily slurped and swallowed

Adjectives: Instead of red, you could write blood red or overripe-tomato red. Note that groups of words serving as adjectives often contain sections which should be hyphenated. If you want to review the rules, check out the following link: http://www.drgrammar.org/faqs/

Adverbs: Instead of slowly, you could write less quickly. Admittedly, this is not a particularly good example but it may be appropriate.

Grammarians have much more to say about phrases and parts of speech, and the intricacies of their thoughts and rules pertaining to adjective phrases and adverbial phrases are beyond the scope of this little column. If you want more on the subject, please visit: http://webster.commnet.edu/grammar/definitions.htm

A second but related way of looking at parts of a sentence – how they relate to each other – within a sentence – such as a subject phrase or an object phrase – but we will get to that in an as-yet-unwritten column on sentences.

Creating Phrases

How do you come up with a well-turned phrase? When is it good and when not? I believe this is where the answer approaches art rather than science, poetry as opposed to prose, which is not my strength as a writer. Besides, reactions to phrases are subjective; there are no hard-and-fast rules; and much depends on the context and your characters. So the ideas below are only suggestions; hopefully they will stimulate your own thinking and creativity.

Avoiding clichés Most experts on writing recommend that you avoid clichés. What is a cliché? It’s a phrase that has been used so often that it has become trite, annoying, or hackneyed. Now, a phrase may be all right in certain circumstances; it depends on the context, but here are a couple of well-known clichés: in a jiffy, hard as nails, flower among women, jewel among thieves, better late than never, or crushing blow.

It is also important to keep from making your own clichés. Some authors fall into this trap by attaching the same adjectives to a noun or a character, every time that noun or character appears. If you find yourself putting the word “flickering” before the word “firelight” every time you write “firelight,” you are creating a cliché. If you find yourself doing this, take a moment to come up with other possible adjectives or consider writing the word “firelight” without any adjectives at all.


Your writing can often be strengthened if you shift from the general to the particular. The more specific you can be, the better – almost always. For example, instead of the soldier you could write the brand-new recruit with his stiff, badly-fitting uniform.

Particularity, however, does not work when it disrupts the rest of your writing. For example, if you opt for hoplite instead of soldier, you may force some of your readers to visit the dictionary when you want them to stay with your story.


Alliteration means having one or more words in a row beginning with the same first letter. Bouncing baby boy is an example of alliteration. Unfortunately it has been used so often that it is also cliché. You can invent your own: lazy lemons, cheap chickadees, prickly promises, blistering blunders. For these to work best you need to consider more than just the first letter – to strike the ears as well as the eyes the sound should be the same.

Note that alliteration is an instance of different levels of structure – letters and phrases - being combined consciously in order to create stronger writing.

Unexpectedly Joined Concepts

Another way to make a phrase more unusual is to put together words that would normally not go together. One of my all-time favorites is Shakespeare’s, “you canker-blossom!” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as Hermia discovers that her fiancé, thanks to a poorly poured potion, has transferred his affections from her to her friend. A more modern example is the title of Alice Sebold’s bestseller, The Lovely Bones, or Tony Hillerman’s Sacred Clowns. We don’t usually think of bones as being lovely or of clowns as being sacred, so these titles catch attention.

Again we have interaction between different levels of structure - words and phrases - thus adding depth and texture to writing.

Rewriting Clichés Doing this can result in groan-elucidating puns, or memorable titles, or metaphors re-cast to improve your story. For example, the phrase erogenous zones refers to the parts of the body which can be used to stimulate sexual arousal. Wayne Dyer rewrote this phrase in order to title one of his best-selling books, Your Erroneous Zones, thus attracting immediate attention.

You can also take a phrase and re-work it to fit your character and setting. For example, my main writing period is the Greek Bronze Age. Instead of writing like a bull in a china shop, which would be anachronistic as Greece had no china shops in the Bronze Age, I changed it to like a bull in a potter’s workshop.

Note that in these instances we have examples of interaction between phrases and other phrases. Again, in good writing the levels of structure often interact with each other. What is interesting is that these are examples of phrases interacting with phrases which not used explicitly, but which already exist in your readers’ minds and experience.

Use of very Well-Turned Phrases

A phrase can be so beautifully written that it calls attention to itself. Do you want this to happen? The answer depends on the significance of that phrase to your writing. If the phrase is critical – for example, the title of your book, a prophecy from the oracle or a proposal of marriage – then you want a phrase which is memorable, which calls attention to itself. In other instances you may not want to jar the reader’s attention. In Iokaste, in a paragraph of description, my co-author and I wrote “the king’s crown, cunningly crafted.” Several test readers noticed this bit of description and expected it to be significant – but it wasn’t; it was only description. We decided that their reaction was not strong enough to remove it, but if it had been stronger, we would have hit the delete key.


This column has barely scratched the surface of what could be written about phrases, but I hope it stimulates your awareness of some of the things which are happening when you put two or more words together. If you have comments or questions, please feel free to contact me directly.

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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack is the author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus. She is working on her own series of novels, set in Bronze Age Greece. There’s exciting news about Iokaste: even the Greeks want to read it! Learn more about Iokaste and other books in the series at Tapestry of Bronze.

Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the Writing Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.