Useful Phrases

It wasn’t long after I started writing fiction that I realized I could use some help.  Even after reading hundreds of novels and many stories, I knew that I was still unschooled in the science, or craft, of fiction.  In those days before the Internet, I spent many hours in libraries walking the aisles, reading titles and leafing through books in search of whatever subject had seized me at a particular moment.  My search for advice in writing fiction went the same way.  One evening in the Valparaiso, Indiana public library, I happened upon a book that was very old and very curious.  I picked it up because of its title, The Craft of Fiction.  Now that, I thought, is what I needed.  “The craft of fiction” should pretty much cover it.

I have a thing for old books.  Even then, 25 or so years ago, the book was old.  Not only that, but it was written by a guy named Percy Lubbock.  How cool is that?  NOT VERY!

But I loved the book.  Lubbock talked about things I loved, in a style grandiose and yet readable, with a passion and wisdom that I admired and even coveted.  Whoever this Percy fellow was, he understood so very much and used so many interesting words and phrases to express his knowledge and wisdom.  Many years after reading The Craft of Fiction the first time, I purchased a well-worn copy and have read it several times since.  It only gets better as I get older.  Lubbock’s opening paragraph actually increases in meaning as I age.

To grasp the shadowy and fantasmal form of a book, to hold it fast, to turn it over and survey it at leisure–that is the effort of a critic of books, and it is perpetually defeated. Nothing, no power, will keep a book steady and motionless before us, so that we may have time to examine its shape and design. As quickly as we read, it melts and shifts in the memory; even at the moment when the last page is turned,a great part of the book, its finer detail, is already vague and doubtful. A little later, after a few days or months, how much is really left of it? A cluster of impressions, some clear points emerging from a mist of uncertainty, this is all we can hope to possess, generally speaking, in the name of a book. The experience of reading it has left something behind, and these relics we call by the book’s name; but how can they be considered to give us the material for judging and appraising the book?

The Craft of Fiction is full of advice, bulging with opinion, and bursting with words and phrases most delightful.  In my later readings, I found myself dwelling more on Lubbock’s language and less on his meaning.  One night, while reading the book in bed, I grabbed my notebook and started writing down interesting phrases.  Most of them, it turned out, consisted only of two words.  And so I continued on that night, and a number of nights afterward, searching through Lubbock’s book and copying down his two-word phrases. When I had finished, I marveled at the size of the list and marveled too at the vocabulary of a man who possessed such a command of English and the countless words in its lexicon.

But Percy Lubbock wasn’t my only source for two-word phrases.  One day while surfing the Web, I found a reference to an obscure book by an obscure author.  The book’s title is Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases. The author? None other than Grenville Kleiser.  Never heard of him?  Well, neither had I.  But Kleiser was interested in words, and he had collected thousands of word combinations and had organized them into eleven classifications.  Of the phrase variety, Kleiser identified them as Useful, Significant, Felicitous, Impressive, Prepositional, Business, Conversational, Public Speaking, and Miscellaneous. He included two other groupings of words: Literary Expressions and Striking Similes.  The Useful Phrases consist of two words.  They must be useful because they are short and, in Kleiser’s mind, effective and efficient.  At any rate, I harvested the two-word phrases and, combined with those of Percy Lubbuck, entered them into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.  You can find that spreadsheet here.  It contains 3,941 two-word phrases for your etymological delight.  Knock yourself out.  Add your own two-word phrases, or those of some other wordy bloke.  Don’t blame me if you go crazy trying to figure out when and where to use this newfound resource.  So many words, and so little time . . .

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