Fresh Language and Surprises

Dull language has three main qualities: (1) boring, (2) boring, and (3) boring. So, do your SAT readers a favor by giving them a verbal surprise. After reading hundreds of predictable essays on the same topic, readers will do cartwheels for something fresh and new. (Ha! SAT readers doing cartwheels—that”s kind of a surprise, isn”t it?) It takes courage and imagination to use fresh language, but here”s a guarantee: A verbal surprise may not turn SAT readers into acrobats, but it will unquestionably give your essay a boost.

What is a verbal surprise? Nothing more than an interesting image or choice of words. That doesn”t mean use odd words like twit or fop. Even ordinary words, used deftly, can dazzle readers. Moreover they”ll sound more natural. For example:


I was ten before I saw my first pigeon.


I was ten before I met my first pigeon.

Because we don”t normally “meet” pigeons, the unanticipated change from saw to met is mildly surprising.


The shark bit the swimmers.


The shark dined on the swimmers.

Changing the verb makes a common sentence surprising because dined suggests gentility and good manners, qualities that most sharks lack.


The gunshot frightened the pigeons, which flew away.


The gunshot filled the sky with frightened pigeons.

The ordinary sentence states literally that the sound of the gunshot scared the pigeons. In the revision, the shot becomes a vital force with the power to fill the sky. Both the pigeons and the sentence have sprung to life.

Words can also surprise readers by suggesting certain sounds. The word bombard, for instance, has a heavy explosive sound. Yawn has a wide-open sound that can be stretched out indefinitely. Slogging is slow, just like the action it names, and choke sticks in your throat. Murmuring streamsevokes the sound of—what else?

Readers find unexpected pleasure, too, from the repetition of sounds—both consonants and vowels, as in the dark, dank day smelled of death; the machine sucked up sewage from the swamp; and the cold wind moaned over the ocean waves. The appeal of such repetition is evidenced by the countless clichés that crowd our everyday speech and (regrettably) our writing, such as footloose and fancy free, sink or swim, and blast from the past. In short, an occasional treat for the ears will go far to captivate your readers. But don”t repeat sounds too often because they might call attention to themselves and pull the reader away from the meaning of your words.


English is filled with wonderful words to describe virtually anything. Yet, occasionally emotions and experiences seem almost beyond words. At such times, you can depend on figures of speech such as metaphors and similes to make meaning clear. How, for instance, do you show the weird look the bus driver gave you this afternoon, or what a city street sounds like at six o”clock on a summer morning? What about the feel of clean sheets, the taste of a Coke that”s lost its fizz, the smell of a new car, a fear, a frustration?

A uniquely expressed comparison can catch elusive details and fleeting sensations. That bus driver, for instance may have looked at you “as though you were something on the sole of his shoe.” The summer morning may have sounded “like an orchestra tuning up to play,” and the bedsheets may have felt “like a drink of cold spring water on a sultry August afternoon.”

In addition, comparisons are economical. They require fewer words than you might otherwise need to state an idea. To describe elderly men fishing from a pier, for instance, you might mention their lined faces, the folds of papery skin at their throats, the pale and cracked lips, and the white stubble on their chins. But if all those details were superfluous, you could simply compare the men to wooden slats on a weathered fence. Instantly your reader will see the resemblance: Gray men lined up on the pier like boards on a weather-beaten fence.

The limited vocabulary of young children keeps them from expressing all they want to say. By nature, therefore, they make up comparisons: “Daddy, when my foot goes to sleep it feels like ginger ale.” “Mommy, this ice cream tastes like chocolate sunshine.” As people grow older, they often lose this knack of making colorful comparisons and have to relearn it. But when you start consciously to seek comparisons, you”ll find them sprouting like weeds in a garden—that is, everywhere.

Similes (Tim wrestles like a tiger) and metaphors (Tim is a tiger) point out likenesses between something familiar (tiger) and something unfamiliar (how Tim wrestles). To convey meaning, one side of a comparison must always be common and recognizable. Therefore, comparing the cry of the Arctic tern to the song of a tree toad won”t enlighten a reader familiar with neither water birds nor tree toads. Because you can expect readers to know the sound of a fiddle, however, a more revealing comparison is The cry of the Arctic tern sounds like a fiddler searching for a c-sharp.

TIP images

Clichés belong in the clichés graveyard, not in your essay.

Make your comparisons fresh and original. Don”t rely on old stand-bys such as “life is like a box of chocolates,” or “like a bat out of hell,” or “dead as a doornail.” Our language is littered with countless comparisons that once may have been vibrant and fresh but have wilted from overuse. The fact is that every familiar combination of words, such as “I could care less” or “you”ve got to be kidding” or “what a bummer,” was once new, cool, even poetic. But repetition has turned them into clichés.

Let clichés rest in the cliché graveyard. Don”t drag them out for your SAT essay. That is an admonition easier to say that to follow because clichés crowd our conversations, swamp our airwaves, and deluge the media. Like the air we breathe (a cliché), we hardly notice them. In an essay, however, especially one that is supposed to demonstrate your unique cast of mind, you must avoid clichés like the plague. “Like the plague,” in fact, is one you should avoid, along with other secondhand phrases and expressions like the bottom line; on the ground; how does that sit with you; touch base with; there has been a sea-change in…; off the top of my head; at the end of the day; a point well taken; two sides of the same coin; getting psyched; double-edged sword; go off the deep end; life on the edge; life in the fast lane; for openers; think outside the box; flipped out; a full plate; get a life; get real; super; chief honcho; the big cheese; so amazing; that”s cool; the whole enchilada; no way, José, and would you believe, would you believe? (This list of clichés is far from complete. No doubt you could add many more.)

On the SAT you won”t be penalized for an essay lacking inventive and scintillating expressions, but you”ll pay a price if your writing is overrun with clichés. Get into the habit, then, of purging all trite phrases from your writing vocabulary. Half the battle, as they say, is knowing a cliché when you meet one. The other half—expelling them—is still to be fought and won.

Practice in Writing Comparisons


Directions: Untold numbers of comparisons are waiting to be born. Because you see the world differently from everyone else, you can invent memorable comparisons that no one—not Shakespeare, not Milton, not Whitman, nor any other immortal—ever thought of. Write an original comparison for each of the qualities listed below. Avoid clichés.

1. as comfortable as

2. as tough as

3. as gorgeous as

4. as silly as

5. as serious as

6. as perfect as

7. as wild as

8. as unpredictable as

9. as impetuous as

10. as reliable as


Directions: Try your hand at writing an extended comparison, in which you expand upon a single metaphor or simile. If you can”t think of one, try one of these:

In what ways is life like a river? A carousel? A hero”s journey?

How does school resemble a zoo? A shopping mall? An airport?

How is music like a clearing in the woods? A chapel? A painting?

(Add paper, if necessary.)