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A Possible Metrical Substrate for a Phraseological Cliché (“Exactly Right”)

English is a language with a long verse tradition, including epic and folk poetry (jingles, counting rhymes, etc.), which makes it plausible to suspect that poetic form may unconsciously penetrate ordinary language. This may be one of the reasons (aside from the current penchant in American English for hypertrophic––specifically, pleonastic––constructions, due to a failure of thought) why the jejune phrase “exactly right” (or its further engorged variant, “that’s exactly right”) has become so odiously common.

Judged metrically, “exactly right” has two stresses, each of which is preceded by an unstressed syllable, rendering the phrase iambic. If “that’s” is added to the beginning, it can be counted as an anacrusis, even though it bears its own stress. QED.

One should never discount the possibility of a subterranean presence of the poetic impulse in even the most platitudinous precincts of ordinary language use.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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