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I have a sentence I am trying to write that just doesn't feel right. It currently reads "It is commonly said that X, but the truth is that Y." The second part feels okay, but the first part feels like something you have to climb over to get to the point.

I've tried a couple other approaches but I'm not quite happy with them:

  • "It is popular to say that X, but in this case Y."
  • "X under normal circumstances, but Y."

Examples for X and Y can be:

  • The world slept; nobody slept
  • The citizens worked towards the betterment of society; everyone was out for themselves
  • They were holding the reins; they were being led
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    This question seems to better fit on the "English" SE site. It might get migrated to that site. – storbror May 29 at 7:31
  • @storbror I agree, but it looks like I don’t have enough rep to move it. – GammaGames May 29 at 14:30
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    By the way, when speaking of holding power or control, it's "reins," not "reigns" (which is what royalty does). – user8356 May 29 at 19:35
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    "It is a truth universally acknowledged that ___" is a good starting point. :) – hobbs May 30 at 5:32
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    @Storbror Can you justify that? To me, this is clearly a case for SE Writing and little to do with SE English… I suspect some other site somehow in between would be better than either… and I have no more idea than anyone else what that intermediate site might be. – Robbie Goodwin May 30 at 19:09
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There are as many ways to say "here is an idea" as there are words. The second part doesn't matter for now; it will naturally follow the first.

You are going to make a contrast, but first you are going to introduce an idea.

"People often say" is one brief way to introduce an idea that you are identifying as a common concept or belief.

But so is: "Among the philosophers and rulers of ancient Rome, the belief that the gods often directly intervened in human affairs was as certain as it was among the proletariat."

My point is that situation (plot), concept and character are everything. Is your character (or narrator) a scholar who would use academic phrasing, or a radio announcer who would use glib wordplay, or a teenager who uses slang to speak bluntly?

That's just one way of looking at the phrasing question.

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  • Great points, thank you! The “character” is a Lemony Snicket-esque narrator, so phrasing I have a bit of wiggle room – GammaGames May 30 at 0:26
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"It is commonly believed, that ____. However, ____"

"It is a common misconception, that ____. In reality ____."

"Many believe it to be true, that ____, when in fact ____."

"You'd be forgiven for believing that ____ was what happened, as that was what we were told. The truth is that ____."

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    "While it is often claimed that _____, _____." – Chronocidal May 29 at 12:55
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    thought, the word is thought ... at least I thought it was. - Ngram with all of these, except the last one – Mazura May 30 at 0:50
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    @Mazura probably want to turn the Norma to case insensitive. – Tim May 30 at 10:20
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    @Tim - Whoops. Well, would you believe that? Apparently, it is commonly said isn't as commonly said anymore. – Mazura May 30 at 10:24
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What you write depends on what you want to say, and who is saying it.

If your emphasis is on the second part, you don't need to explain the first part. You can use something like:

  • "Really? Today the roses are blue."
  • "Who knew that Valentine roses would be blue this year."
  • "ugg. Another week of wearing a mask."

If you want to emphasize that there is a change from a prior state, the prior state must be clear. If it can be clear from the earlier setting, it might not take much.

  • "Why is it raining in LA?"
  • "I came to Seattle for the gloom, but I get nothing but sunshine."

If there is something about the character you are trying to expose, it may take a little more work:

  • John looked in the mirror and positioned the grey hairs deeper into his luxurious waves. A few insolent strands flew up again, but small drops of hair gel locked them in place. John enjoyed his appearance -- the way his hair framed his black, carbon fiber glasses and the sharp outline his sculpted beard gave his otherwise soft chin. With his appearance optimized, he grunted as he pulled a face mask over his head. Ruffled by the elastic, his hair locked into dishevelment. His beard and chin were both obscured, visible only in his self-image. "Everyone has to sacrifice something these days," he sighed to no one as he turned off light in the emergency hospital's single break room and prepared to enter the triage hall.

If what you place in a character's mouth doesn't feel right to the character, just let them say it the way the want to. If you are saying more than you need, say less. If questions remain, that is good if the questions drive the reader's curiosity for what happens next. Remember that by inducing questions you have implicitly promised to answer them while they are still important. If the questions aren't important to move the story, answer them before they are asked through setting, character, or backstory. Confirmation builds belief. Unanswered questions create disappointed readers.

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  • This seems like good advice, thank you very much! I think I'll rework X to be shorter and fit with the narration style more and put more focus on Y. – GammaGames May 29 at 17:07
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I like "It is received wisdom that …" though this can sound stuffy in many contexts. But it does apply to both conditions (X and Y) in that when used it connotes that the actual wisdom lies elsewhere.

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  • This is definitely an alternative to what is commonly said, I'll give you that. It is only imperceptibly above Many believe it to be in the Ngram, both of which hug the bottom line. – Mazura May 30 at 3:00
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In some cases it will work to simply negate X, and then state Y.

  • The world was awake; nobody slept
  • The citizens didn't work towards the betterment of society; everyone was out for themselves
  • They weren't holding the reigns; they were being led

These might not be the best examples though.

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"Many will say that..." or "Many have said that..."

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Try simply eliminating the first part of your sentences or eliminating the "It is commonly said":

  • Nobody slept.
  • The citizens were out for themselves.
  • They were not holding the reins; they were being led.
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