I am trying to write an essay and the only phrase I can think of is "shit happens". I'm wondering; is there any formal way to say shit happens?

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    The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.
    – TimR
    Commented Apr 25, 2015 at 11:55
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    Dudu occurs. (this is from an old bumper sticker);-)
    – x457812
    Commented Apr 25, 2015 at 15:47
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    What kind of essay is this where you would need to use such a dismissive statement? Commented Apr 25, 2015 at 19:02
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    @BlueRaja - That's a fair question. Opinions are not unanimous on this, but there is a longstanding SE policy that discourages the use of vulgar words in the titles of questions. See Jeff Atwood's accepted answer here for one example; the matter is discussed further in the comments under the accepted answer here. This topic is also discussed on this SE meta question.
    – J.R.
    Commented Apr 26, 2015 at 16:59
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    I like "that's the way the cookie crumbles" as an informal but polite idiom.
    – Flexo
    Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 16:32

6 Answers 6


I think the closest expression with the same meaning and very similar connotations would be the French expression:

C'est la vie.


That's life.

You can use the French phrase as is because it is famous enough to be understood in any English speaking country.

Certainly there are some more possibilities to say it in a polite way as to avoid vulgarity:

Stuff happens.

or you can use the English idiom:

Worse things happen at sea.

as a way of telling someone not to worry so much about their problems.

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    I am not sure if in English c'est la vie is equivalent to shit happens, but it is not in French. It does not carry the abrupt and strongly negative tone, it is rather light-hearted (usually - not always).
    – WoJ
    Commented Apr 25, 2015 at 20:51
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    @WoJ: to me (native English speaker), “shit happens” is not terribly abrupt or negative; it’s usually used to downplay the significance of something that otherwise might be seen as moderately-to-strongly negative.
    – PLL
    Commented Apr 26, 2015 at 16:50
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    @WoJ: I've always understood "shit happens" to be rather light-hearted. Negative tone would be "f**k"
    – slebetman
    Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 0:15
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    @MichaelDurrant "stuff happens" is polite, however, it's not "formal" and you wouldn't write it in an "essay".
    – MrWhite
    Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 23:25
  • @WoJ In American English, "shit happens" is rather light-hearted, almost like "eh, go figure". I'm not sure if American English has abrupt and negative equivalents Commented Apr 25, 2020 at 6:44

A polite and reassuring way:

"It could have been worse"

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    This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post - you can always comment on your own posts, and once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post.
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Apr 25, 2015 at 14:28
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    @MARamezani As a native speaker, I view this an acceptable answer to the original poster's question. Depending upon where you are at in the English speaking world, some people might use this phrase. For example, a quiet, rural Midwestern might use this phrase whereas an urbanite might just use the OP's phrase. Commented Apr 25, 2015 at 15:13
  • Original question is not asking for a direct translation, but a way to express the same thing. "Could be worse" or similar does the trick.
    – Smithers
    Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 16:55

Lucian's suggestion of "C'est la vie" is a good one. There are a few other ways you could express the same idea:

Depending on the context, you might want to reference Murphy's Law. Murphy's Law is often stated as:

Anything that can go wrong, will.

This is a phrase you would use if you were talking about things going wrong before they did, or how they could have been avoided.

If you're talking about something going wrong after the fact, and especially something that could not have been prevented, you could also say:

That's life!

This is a more idiomatic way of phrasing Pazzo's suggestion. The implication is the same: in life, things happen, good and bad, and you just have to deal with it.

For a more literary tone, you could use the Burns quote suggested by TRomano's comment, the actual original phrasing of which is:

The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men

Gang aft agley

This is often misquoted in more standard English as:

The best-laid plans of mice and men

Oft go awry.

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    It's not "misquoted" any more than the NIV Bible is a "misquoted" version of the KJV Bible. Modern times call for modern words.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Apr 26, 2015 at 18:00
  • Like your other suggestions, but not keen on referencing Murphy. His law is an engineering precept, meaning that one can and should design such that nothing can go wrong before the event. "Shit happens" is an often post-hoc "explanation" for something going wrong. As such it there denotes a quite contrary mindset.
    – Keith
    Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 6:13

Things happen in life that we may not like.


Bad things happen.

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    That's not the same as "shit happens", but much more serious. You dropped your ice cream on the floor: Shit happens. You lost your job: Bad things happen. In each case using the other term would be inappropriate.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 0:32

To avoid the expletive, you could just say "stuff happens", which is somewhat idiomatic (though not nearly so idiomatic as "shit happens").

That's still rather informal but, in the right context and used only occasionally, informality can work well in an essay. It lightens the mood. Be careful not to over-use informality and be careful that it's only a little break from the serious stuff and that it doesn't ruin the flow.


Petanque is a metaphor for life - anything can happen and it usually does

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    I don't think this is a good suggestion. Petanque is not at all popular in English-speaking countries so it doesn't make for a strong metaphor. Commented Apr 25, 2015 at 12:45
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    While I don't think this is a great answer, I don't think it is low enough quality to delete. It would be improved if you linked to a definition of petanque and explained a little more about how common/formal it is.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Apr 26, 2015 at 13:32

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