platitude

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

platitude
H.L. Mencken, A Book of Burlesques (1916). (Getty Images)

Definition

A platitude is a trite and obvious observation, in particular one that's expressed as if it were fresh and significant. Adjectives: platitudinous and platitudinal. Verb: platitudinize.

A person who habitually uses platitudes—or clichés—is (among other things) a platitudinarian.

Platitudes can be "instruments of gentle criticism," says Karen Tracy. "Platitudes are especially useful in the context of public argument, for they promote the sense that a speaker is addressing a policy concern rather than actually criticizing or attacking a person" (Challenges of Ordinary Democracy, 2010).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Etymology
From Old French, "flat, dull"
 

Examples and Observations

  • "One of the saving graces (there's a platitude) is the ability to laugh now and then. Without that, going on might be impossible."
    (Charles Bukowski, "Notes of a Dirty Old Man." Absence of the Hero, ed. by David Stephen Calonne. City Lights Books, 2010)

     
  • "You're as young as you feel.
    Crime does pay.
    It doesn't matter what you're doing, as long as you're having fun.
    Love will always get you through.
    Crime doesn't pay.
    He/she who laughs last, laughs best.
    Everybody needs somebody.
    All's well that ends well.
    Honesty is the best policy.
    Life begins at 50 (or 60).
    It's okay to be silly.
    You have to act your age.
    Acting your age is for old people.
    Love what you do.
    Do what you love.
    The secret to a long life is doing what you love.
    Who cares what other people say?


    "There are already some four-star platitudes on the list, some old sayings, some repeats, and a few opposing ideas."
    (Jay Douglas, Stalking the Story. Alpha Books, 2011)

     
  • "His subjects are intriguing, but Coles is embarrassingly conventional and unreflective. He writes in platitudes (about 'life's ironies,' 'the dilemmas of our time,' 'the richest nation in the world,' people's 'darker side,' Freud's 'superior cast of mind,' etc.)."
    (William White, The Library Journal Book Review, 1975)

     
  • "He was fond of thinking in platitudes--but to him all platitudes were profound and had the freshness and vigour of original thought.

    "'Like bubbles,' he said to himself, 'human life is as momentary as a bubble.'"
    (Khushwant Singh, "Posthumous." Not A Nice Man To Know: The Best of Khushwant Singh. Penguin, 2000)

     
  • "Everybody can repeat the platitude that the mob can be the greatest of all tyrants. But few realise or remember the corresponding truth which goes along with it--that the mob is the only permanent and unassailable high priest."
    (G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens: A Critical Study, 1906)

     
  • Anti-Intellectualism in Politics: Inspirational Platitudes and Partisan Punch Lines
    "Instead of bringing arguments to the public deliberative sphere, [American] presidents are increasingly inclined to declare and assert, offering us a predictable inventory of inspirational platitudes and partisan punch lines. I turn first to George W. Bush and his use of inspirational platitudes as an instance of argument by declaration, then to Bill Clinton and his use of partisan punch lines as an instance of argument by assertion. It may appear at first glance that these two anti-intellectual strategies are polar opposites of each other. Platitudes articulate the obvious and are therefore assumed to be universal, while partisan punch lines are strategically one-sided and therefore particular. Both however are united by their rejection of the weighing and judging of reasons. Both are proffered as foundational beliefs that cannot be argued for or against. Self-evident truths can be declared without justification, just like partisan punch lines are asserted strategically to preempt consideration of the other side. Both paradoxically transmit ambiguous meaning in categorical language. Indeed, that is why partisan punch lines are often dressed up in the ambiguous language of platitudes. Phrases such as 'liberty,' 'support our troops,' and 'freedom in Iraq' are often deployed as coded conservative punch lines delivered as creedal platitudes that cannot be denied, while 'fairness,' 'universal health care,' 'equal employment opportunity' are the liberal analogues of projects that are self-evidently unobjectionable."
    (Elvin T. Lim, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush. Oxford University Press, 2008)

     
  • The New Rhetoric of Civility
    "The new rhetoric of civility misunderstands the role of argument as a social and socializing process. In so doing, it dissuades the public from embracing and refining argument as a means to achieve civility. In seeking a cure to incivility, today's discussions have characterized argument as a disease, when its cultivation might actually offer the most efficacious cure. . . .

    "If we fail to redeem ourselves through rhetoric, we condemn ourselves to recycling platitudes about civility. And through those platitudes, the new rhetoric of civility will continue to perpetuate the very stereotype about argument that, ironically, have led to today's calls for civility."
    (Rolf Norgaard, "The Rhetoric of Civility and the Fate of Argument." Rhetoric, the Polis, and the Global Village: Selected Papers From the 1998 Thirtieth Anniversary Rhetoric Society of America Conference, ed. by C. Jan Swearingen and Dave Pruett. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999)

     
  • Platitudes in Drama
    "That an idea is not available dramatically until it has become a platitude is itself one of the most platitudinous of dramatic platitudes. But there is a considerable difference in the mere availability of a platitude and the conversion of the platitude into lively and engaging drama. Good drama, in point of fact, consists in so veiling a basic platitude with the vari-colored gauzes of imaginative beauty that it shall be but vaguely perceptible to those who give it eye and ear. The greater the dramatist, the more successful he is in deceiving his audiences as to the existence in his work of the platitude. He is, in a way of speaking, a prestidigitator of platitudes: one whose infinite legerdemain of metaphor, fancy, wit and surface originality is successful constantly in making the ever-present platitude seem to disappear."
    (George Jean Nathan, Materia Critica. Alfred A. Knopf, 1924)

 

Pronunciation: PLAT-i-tood