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Automatic writing

Hey. kids! Writing doesn’t have to be hard! It’s easy! All you have to do is punch in a few ready-made phrases, and you’re done!

Take this little test to show yourself what you can do. Fill in the blanks in the sentences below, and then check them against the answers at the bottom.

But don’t peek!

1. She grew up in a _______ home on a ___-_____ street in a _____ suburb.

2. The drug dealer grew up in a _____ neighborhood in the ____  _____.

3. He died last week after a ____  _____ with cancer.
4. She received a _________ award from the university.

5. In a matter of seconds, his dream turned into a ________.

6. The Cabinet officer defended his __________ policy.



We told you not to look at the answers first.

Eyes back to the top, bub.

With the answers, at no additional charge, you get commentary.

1. She grew up in a stately home on a tree-lined street in a leafy suburb.
Blenheim Palace, built by the Duke of Marlborough, is one of the stately homes of England. (An epitaph for Sir John Vanbrugh, the architect, plays on the traditional Latin wish that the earth may lie lightly on the dead: “Lie heavy on him, Earth! for he/ Laid many heavy loads on thee.”) 

Today, of course, any brick 4BR, 4BA valued above a couple of hundred thousand dollars can be called a “stately home,” especially if it is surrounded by  those tall leafy objects.

2. The drug dealer grew up in a gritty neighborhood in the inner city.
Gritty has become the adjective of choice for down-market, unattractive, lower middle class or impoverished — not the sort of place where journalists choose to live. And inner city no longer means a neighborhood deep in the city. It can be a neighborhood at the city limits. The phrase is a code for saying that poor people, probably black, live there. 

3. He died last week after a long battle with cancer.
Using this metaphor for a lingering disease relieves the writer of the burden of coming up with something original.

4. She received a prestigious award from the university.
Yeah, and she probably has the prestigious “World’s Best Mom” coffee mug on her desk. If an award has genuine prestige — the Nobel Prize, say — no one calls it “prestigious.” And if its prestige is limited to about 50 people, then prestigious is a meaningless and wasted adjective.

5. In a matter of seconds, his dream turned into a nightmare.
You can use an obvious antithesis like this over and over. Jesse Jackson’s “Never look down on anybody unless you're helping them up”  shows how easily this sort of thing can be done.

6. The Cabinet officer defended his controversial policy.
Well, if were non-controversial, there would be no need to defend it. Controversial is one of those empty adjectives used to tell the reader that this story is very, very important. Why the policy is controversial, or who is involved in the controversy, can be skated over.

Please note: If some killjoy on the staff has prohibited controversial, merely because it means nothing, feel free to use contentious instead. It has much the same effect: an additional word without significant additional meaning.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:05 PM | | Comments (1)


I'm proud -- no wait, ashamed? -- that I got a lot of these without peeking.

Can you also help me find out what correspondence school teaches, erm, correspondents to write the phrase "A fun time was had by all?" over and over again?

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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