Habit Phrases

We have a fun Editor’s Corner for you from the archives!

This month we are going to talk about certain verb phrases: habit phrases, redundant phrases, and just plain stupid—as in stoooopid—phrases. These are a few of my favorite peeves.


I think most writers are simply unaware. I know I am. I simply type along. Things just come out. Like they just come out of people’s mouths. For instance, the phone rings. Like everyone else on the planet, I have caller ID. So I know who’s calling, right? I answer the phone and say, “Hi, Mary.” And Mary says, “Hi. It’s Mary.” Stupid stuff just leaks out.


Stating the obvious goes along with stupid stuff.



“He clapped his hands.” That one always makes me laugh. What else might he clap? His feet? Adding an adverb helps the situation. “He clapped his hands enthusiastically.” Better.


How about “He encircled her waist with his arm”? Is that as opposed to encircling her waist with his tongue, perhaps? I prefer simply “He encircled her waist,” or “He encircled her waist with a muscular arm.” This time it’s an adjective making things better.


This is another sentence I recently came across while editing. “The bank robber opened fire with his gun.” Hmmmm.


And “She licked her lips with her tongue.” You’re beginning to get it, aren’t you?


Once I even saw the sentence “He chewed his food with his teeth.” No kidding.


These aren’t huge problems, obviously, but by being aware of stating the obvious and by changing things up just a bit, simplifying or adding modifiers, we write better, I believe.


“She licked her lips with a too-dry tongue” or “She licked her lips.”


“He chewed his food” or “He chewed his food with his gleaming white teeth.”


Let’s move on to habit verb phrases. My least favorite phrase and the most abused and overused is “beginning to.”



“It began to occur to her she was married to an idiot.” Please tell me how something “begins to occur.” If something occurs to you, isn’t it, like, a sudden thought? It doesn’t sneak up on you slowly. It . . . occurs.


“It began to rain.” I see this a lot, and it isn’t too bad. I like it better with another part to it: “Soon it became a downpour,” for instance. But “He began to run” is a stretch for me. Either he was running or he wasn’t. “She began to cough.” Uh-huh. Do you actually begin to cough? Is it a protracted moment? Or do you get right into coughing? One of my favorites is “He began to stop breathing.” I don’t even know what to say about that one.


The next three verb phrases I see used and abused most often are “move to,” “reach to,” and “stepped to.”


“He moved to take her hand.” No. “He took her hand.” In my mind at least, if you move to do something, it implies the action was not completed. I am left with an incomplete picture in my head—a hand suspended in midair. Moving but never arriving.


The same goes for “reached to.” “She reached to touch his cheek.” I see her forever reaching, never connecting. Furthermore, once an author starts using these phrases, it seems he/she is unable to stop. Every action is “reaching” and “moving,” and the style becomes stilted.


Another habit verb I’ve seen is “stepped.” I actually saw a paragraph that read something like this, no exaggeration. “He stepped into the kitchen and moved to her side. He tried to pin her against the counter, but she stepped away. She ran down the hall, and he stepped into the corridor to follow her.” It was as if this author’s record needle got stuck in the groove. Throughout the whole of the manuscript, everyone “stepped.” They didn’t enter or exit or walk into a room but “stepped” in and out. They didn’t get into a car but “stepped” into it. They didn’t walk; they “stepped” everywhere. Running became “stepping quickly.” (I did not acquire this manuscript.)


Please beware of “becoming” as well. There is certainly a time and place for the verb, but it tends to be overused once an author starts using it. “It was becoming hard to see. The young woman squinted, but her vision became blurred.” Don’t you like this better? “It was hard to see. The young woman squinted, but her vision blurred.”


Some helping verbs are not actually very helpful at all. Watch out for “being” and “to be” as well. These can swiftly become bad habits.


Sometimes a phrase just gets put in the wrong place. “The soldier felt pride for the unit swelling in his breast.” Ow. I’ll bet that hurts.


And sometimes a phrase just plain comes out, well, not quite the way we meant it. “His erection sprang from his crotch.” Wow. Just picture that. Did he ever get it back?


Then there are phrases that are just . . . stupid.


“What a beautiful woman, he thought quietly.”


Yes, well . . .


I could go on approximately forever. But I’ve decided to save some for another month.


Ah, yes. The fun has just begun.


Helen A. Rosburg



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