From [Joseph M. Williams. (1990). Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. p.preface]

At some level, of course, all writ­ers express feelings, all writers imagine, no sensible writer delib­erately avoids turning a graceful phrase, no matter how banal the subject.

What is the usage of 'writer delib­erately avoids turning a graceful phrase'?

Does 'turning a graceful phrase' mean 'constantly refining a sentence'?

Looking through the definition items in LONGMAN,I have found the proper definiton at best is 'to shape a wooden or metal object using a special tool'.


1 Answer 1


There is an idiom that the author is playing with "turn a phrase", and the related "turn of phrase", meaning (to use) distinctive, or skilful language. You can also use it to describe someone's manner of phrasing. So a "He has a graceful turn of phrase" means that he speaks or writes in a distinctively graceful manner.

I've seen a couple of suggestions of the origin of this expression, it could be from the notion that plain speech is "straight" but complex speech follows a curved path. Or it may be from the analogy of how a woodturner will "turn a bowl" from a piece of wood by carving it on a lathe (see dictionaries)

So here "turning a graceful phrase" means "writing something distinctively graceful".

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    I'm not sure that I agree with the sentiment expressed in the original quotation. I am strongly reminded of Doctor Johnson's advice to writers: 'Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out, sir! Strike it out!' An editor once wrote: 'So many times when I’ve been reading work I’ve tripped on a well-turned phrase that somehow jars. When I point it out (which will invariably happen) the writer smiles ruefully, muttering ‘I know, I know… I should cut it, but I just love that line…’ Commented May 27 at 8:07
  • One of my favourite writers is Ernest Hemingway, who wrote very plainly. My temptation is always to write too much. I keep it under control so as not to have to cut out crap and re-write. Guys who think they are geniuses because they have never learned how to say no to a typewriter are a common phenomenon. All you have to do is to get a phony style and you can write any amount of words. Commented May 27 at 9:53
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    I'd say that Hemmingway was a master of turning a phrase, precisely because he cut out the crap. He chose his words with great care. The metaphor (if it is derived from wood turning) is cutting out a bowl from the wood, not building it up
    – James K
    Commented May 27 at 10:07
  • I once read of a sculptor saying 'I take a block of stone and cut away everything that isn't the final result'. Commented May 27 at 10:09
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    @MichaelHarvey, the sculptor credited with that line is Michelangelo. Commented May 27 at 12:53

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