"Because they say so" and famous misattributed quotes.

One of the most annoying and lazy habits of some writers is to refer to the nebulous entity, “they”.
“They say travel broadens the mind, ...”  [1]
"Don't listen to what they say ..."
Nice sentiments, but who are 'they'?

“They” are not a trusted source or reliable reference for any fact or assertion. Using “they” to reaffirm an opinion not only insults your readers by expecting them to just consume whatever you write (because you are such an authority), it is also puts on show your inability or unwillingness to actually research something properly.

Okay, while it may be safely assumed that more than half your readers will just take your word for it, there is also a percentage who will ask, “says who?”. Thereafter, none of your writing carries any weight at all.

Simply substituting ‘scientists’ or ‘critics’ doesn’t work either unless you can point to exactly who these learned individuals are. If quoting ‘studies’, then what studies performed by whom and when.

Many of you reading this will recall your university essays and your lecturer coming down on you if your sources were not properly cited. Same deal with travel writing. Don’t assume your readers are uneducated and will blindly follow your beliefs. That would make you a politician.

If you use a quote, make sure you find the source and quote it as accurately as you can. Remember too, that sometimes the credited source may not actually be correct. A famous example is:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” - Mark Twain (not)
This quote is now so common with travel companies promoting whatever they are flogging, it has become cliche. No one has actually checked to see if Twain did really write that. He didn’t. It is a relatively recent quote that appeared in a book by a significantly less famous author who gives credit to his mother.

Some famous misquotes are listed below. Their perpetuation does not make them true.

  • “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” — Albert Einstein (possible source: Rita Mae Brown)
  • “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” —Abraham Lincoln (origins unknown. Bill Clinton used this quote attributing it to Lincoln)
  • “Let them eat cake.” — Marie Antoinette (possible correct source: Jean-Jacques Rousseau)


The Internet has spread many false quotes.
The tendency to quote unverified sources has caught out our best and brightest too. Everyone of my age will remember the famous George Negus interview with Margaret Thatcher. Negus made the mistake of quoting “people” as his source and, unable to cite his source properly, Thatcher promptly tore him to shreds.

So, every time you are tempted to write “they say”, just imagine Margaret Thatcher asking “says who?”


[1] "They say that travelling broadens your mind, but first you must have a mind."
Who said this? William GT Shedd or G K Chesterton?

It sounded right! Homonym horrors

I confess this is not the most original of posts, but the topic is one that continues to interest writers who want to improve their craft and avoid embarrassing mistakes - just like me.

We should all be familiar with the most cringeworthy like: they’re and there; to, too and two and then and than. Autocorrect features in word processing programs are no help either and often serve to make matters worse.

But these easily made errors are still common, yet less obvious, and we continue to see them in uncorrected work on blogs or even on work submitted to editors. Are you guilty?

Pore or Pour
When one studies a document or map, one pores over it.

Be absorbed in reading or studying (something) [Oxford]

One Fell Swoop
Not a ‘foul swoop’, as is the most common misuse.

As in with one swoop of a weapon like an axe or sword.


To be timid or lacking courage.

Not ‘feint-hearted’, as one editor was quick to remind me.

Sailing unchartered waters

Er, no. Stuff that is not on a map (or chart) is uncharted. One ‘charters’ a ship or vessel.

Copywrite protection

Again, nuh. A copywriter writes copy. And this copy may or may not be copyrighted (or subject to intellectual property protection) 

A Stationery target

Unless you are aiming to shoot an envelope, then you mean ‘stationary’ - or standing still.

An allusive quarry
Again, an easy one to make. Here we should use ‘elusive’ - to avoid or elude. An allusion is an indirect reference, like a hint.

Australia’s capitol city

Nope. Canberra is our capital. A capitol is a building full of politicians, or more correctly, legislators.
You want to be a 'pal' with someone who has 'capital'.

How about these examples? Do you know one from the other?
  • Principle or Principal
  • Emigrate or Immigrate
  • Elicit or Illicit
  • Climactic or Climatic

Writers, isn’t it about time we kicked the bucket list?

Sometimes a cliche is thrashed to such a point it transcends even the definition of cliche. The term ‘Bucket List’ is one such overused phrase, beaten to a literary pulp.

Now that this term approaches its tenth birthday, I’m wondering whether those who use it with such gusto even recall its genesis? Clearly the creative geniuses who conceived the Malaysia Airlines promotion in 2014 had lost track of the meaning behind it.

“To enter, customers will need to tell Malaysia Airlines which destinations are on their must-see bucket list after booking their flight” the competition tag-line read. Of course, with two massive tragedies to deal with, references to buckets was less than ideal. Fortunately there were a couple of million astute readers ready to remind them of the folly of their words.

As a refresher to those who may have been living in a cave this last decade, the term ‘Bucket List’ refers to a wishlist of things to do or see before one ‘kicks the bucket’ ie dies.

While it may have been in use prior, the smash hit 2007 comedy movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman propelled it into Cliche Hall of Fame. The two characters, from polar opposite lifestyles, end up in the cancer ward at a US hospital and, to make a long story short, embark on a rampage of indulgence in the short time they have left, visiting iconic locations around the world among other things.

Hence, a ‘bucket list’ should contain items of lifetime significance and not frivolous doodads like a Kardashian handbag or lurid Nike runners.

Barrack Obama, for example, diverted his presidential motorcade while in England in 2014 so he could see Stonehenge, triumphantly announcing to waiting reporters “Knocked it off the bucket list right now!”

Rebecca Mead describes it thus in the venerable New Yorker magazine:

“This is the YOLO-ization of cultural experience, whereby the pursuit of fleeting novelty is granted greater value than a patient dedication to an enduring attention - an attention which might ultimately enlarge the self, and not just pad one’s experiential résumé.”

Surely President Obama would rather have had “enact gun laws” or “create peace in the Middle East” on any genuine POTUS ‘bucket list’.

No matter how it appears these days, the bucket list has gone the way of all good cliches and run its course, losing meaning and languishing in the swill of buzzwords and meaningless jargon. Writers, let's consign ‘bucket list’ to the linguistic landfill.

Look who's talking

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