Monday, March 14, 2011

Affectations (1) – “happens to be”

One of the popular affectations today is the abuse of the expression happens to be.* For example, Richard Russell, a venerable American writer and a man who probably knows better, recently wrote:

“I live in La Jolla, which happens to be a very wealthy community.”

Although I can’t read Mr. Russell’s mind, I have induced from 42 years of copy-editing that most people who abuse happens to be are trying to appear humble about their achievements:

“I happen to be a cardiac surgeon.”

Or about their brains:

“At the time the incident occurred, I happened to have been at Princeton.”

Or about their wealth:

“I live in La Jolla, which happens to be a very wealthy community.”

When the intelligent reader encounters “I live in La Jolla, which happens to be a very wealthy community,” he pauses and thinks sarcastic thoughts. For example:

“Oh, I get it. Once, when you were thinking of relocating, you threw a dart at a map of California and the dart happened to stick in La Jolla. Although you had never happened to have heard of La Jolla before, you packed your belongings into a U-Haul van and drove there. You happened to stroll up to the front window of a real-estate broker’s office and every ad in the window happened to be asking for more than $2 million. And you thought, “I guess La Jolla happens to be a very wealthy community. But fortunately I happen to be able to afford these kinds of prices, so Ill just go inside and talk to a broker.”

My rewrite

“I live in La Jolla, a wealthy community.”

The Takeaway: When you express false modesty, you invite your reader to wonder what else may be false about you. Unless he already knows and trusts your reputation, he may stop reading you. At that point, the effective clarity of your copy drops to zero. Richard Russell, with his long-established reputation, can afford the risk; you and I cannot.

See disclaimer.

*Does the expression have legitimate uses? Yes; for example, when describing a chance event: “When I pulled the first raffle ticket out of the hat, I noticed that it happened to be my sister-in-law’s ticket.”

1 comment:

  1. Ha. Russell happens to be able to afford the risk.