Spring-clean your speech with books on clich'es, sound-alikes

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The Dictionary of Cliches, by James Rogers. New York: Facts on File. 305 pp. $18.95. The Ear Is Human: A Handbook of Homophones and Other Confusions, by James J. Kilpatrick. New York: Andrews, McMeel & Parker. 119 pp. $6.95, paper. With spring-cleaning time upon us, the bookstores have some light guides for cleaning house in language. There's a whiff of fresh air on clich'es and some help with sorting out sound-alike words.

For James Rogers, who's on the board of editors at Scientific American, avoiding clich'es isn't the vigil against the lowbrow that it seemed to be for Eric Partridge, the British word man whose ``A Dictionary of Clich'es'' appeared 4 decades ago.

In a pithy introduction, Rogers faults unthinking overuse of expressions. But he recognizes that clich'es can provide a ``lubricant of language.'' If attentive to meanings and origins -- Rogers lists more than 2,000 terms -- the knowing speaker and writer can tread past the pitfalls.

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Such awareness can even bring a piquant embroidery to language, he notes, as when George Will, the syndicated columnist, ``exclaimed over the fact that the Chicago Cubs support their team `through thin and thin.' ''

Besides clinkers of once-bright terms, Rogers has a range of phrase and fable showing distilled wisdom, matchless economy, or comfy companionability.

Thoughtful acceptance of clich'es -- might it coarsen one's language? Well, it surely beats an unfeeling rejection, as when a New York newspaper once described a visit to court by the anguished mother of a murder suspect: `` `You really feel like your heart is going to break, you know,' she says, seemingly unaware that the sentiment is a clich'e.''

``The Ear Is Human'' steers us straight in the strait of homophones. This amiable paperback by syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick, with cartoons by Charles Barsotti, covers 200 pairs or trios of easily confused terms.

Computers can now catch our misspellings -- but they would blithely let past the blooper; child prot'eg'e (prodigy), for instance. With help from ``The Ear,'' human beings might program themselves for precision.

(In one entry, though, on assure / ensure / insure, good precepts are blurred in inflected examples. Surely it should be ``prompt service would be assured,'' not ``insured.'' And why doesn't rack / wrack include the use, for example, of ``the doubt that has racked this department''?)

If only James Rogers and James Kilpatrick could team up on sound-alike mangled clich'es: like the one from an editorial writer who once strayed from ``all intents and purposes'' to ``all intensive purposes.''

David Thomas is style supervisor at the Monitor.

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