Lesson #211: 10 Intermediate/Advanced Phrases & Words to Enrich Your Writing (from Oscar Wilde)

Every time Easter approaches, I am reminded of a short story, The Selfish Giant (1888), written by the Irish poet and playright Oscar Wilde.

As I was rereading it today, I was impressed again by how splendid and eloquent his writing is, while being easy to read. In fact I think its language is even easier to comprehend than his other short story The Happy Prince, which we considered back in Lesson #195.

I found so many useful words and phrases in The Selfish Giant and would like to share some with you here.

So here they are: 10 intermediate/advanced words or phrases that will raise the standard of your writing (and your speaking too).

📝 #1 ‘in order to’ – for the purpose of, so as to, etc.

📘 ‘The birds sat on the trees and sang so sweetly that the children used to stop their games in order to listen to them.’

– Oscar Wilde, The Selfish Giant

📝 #2 ‘late in coming / arriving / appearing’

This little phrase is often used in situations where to use ‘late’ alone would sound either too direct or even rude. Imagine a conversation between two professors who are expecting another professor to arrive for an important research conference.

👨‍🎓 ‘I believe Professor Smith had intended to arrive at 9am.’

👩‍🎓 ‘Yes, and it is now 10am. I am sure something must have delayed her or else she would not be so late in arriving.’

In such a conversational situation, the speakers would not like to sound judgmental when talking about how ‘late’ their colleague is. ‘Late in arriving/coming/appearing’ is a polite and indirect way to say ‘late’.

These short phrases can also be used to emphasise the unique action of the second verb (the present participle) – arriving, appearing, etc.

📘 “I cannot understand why the Spring is so late in coming,” said the Selfish Giant, as he sat at the window and looked out at his cold white garden; “I hope there will be a change in the weather.”

– Oscar Wilde, The Selfish Giant

✏️ Note: The Selfish Giant could simply have said, ‘I cannot understand why the Spring is so late this year’, but remember that Oscar Wilde was writing in a time when literary English was generally more formal and expressive. As such, ‘so late in coming’ is both more descriptive and courteous.

📝 #3 ‘it seemed to him’ – he thought, it appeared to him to be …

📘 ‘It was really only a little linnet singing outside his window, but it was so long since he had heard a bird sing in his garden that it seemed to him to be the most beautiful music in the world.’

– Oscar Wilde, The Selfish Giant

This is such a good synonymous expression that we can use instead of always saying ‘she/he/I thought’:

  • ‘it seemed to me
  • ‘it seemed to you
  • ‘it seemed to him/her
  • ‘it seemed to us
  • ‘it seemed to you (plural)
  • ‘it seemed to them

📝 #4 ‘only’ [in the sense of ‘but’]

📘 ‘It was a lovely scene, only in one corner it was still winter.’

– Oscar Wilde, The Selfish Giant

This is a more elegant alternative to ‘but’ when we want to express an opposition between one clause and another following it.

📝 #5 ‘not … any longer’

In contemporary spoken English, we tend to use ‘no longer’ instead of ‘not any longer’. Yet this older phrase sounds more refined and can also be used in situations that require a strong emphasis.

📘 ‘And the other children, when they saw that the Giant was not wicked any longer, came running back, and with them came the Spring.’

– Oscar Wilde, The Selfish Giant

📝 #6 ‘they had ever seen’

📘 ‘And when the people were going to market at twelve o’clock they found the Giant playing with the children in the most beautiful garden they had ever seen.’

– Oscar Wilde, The Selfish Giant

This could have been written as ‘they ever saw’ – a wording that most English speakers would readily use. But as with some of the other special phrases we have just looked at in this Lesson, sometimes the more ‘wordy’ expressions also sound that bit more splendid to English ears!

📝 #7 ‘yet’ – but, however

✍️ If you take away one word from today’s Lesson, let it be ‘yet’!

This tiny but versatile word is so useful for expressing a contrast. It is also a little bit more formal than ‘but’.

📘 ‘The Giant was very kind to all the children, yet he longed for his first little friend, and often spoke of him.’

– Oscar Wilde, The Selfish Giant

📝 #8 ‘years went over / by’ – time passed, many years later, many years after

📘 ‘Years went over, and the Giant grew very old and feeble.’

– Oscar Wilde, The Selfish Giant

Again, this expression is that bit more elegant and literary than simply saying ‘many years later’. Oscar Wilde uses the preposition ‘over’ here; in most versions of this phrase I have heard ‘by’ used instead (in fact, Wilde is the only writer I can think of who used ‘over’ in this kind of phrase).

📝 #9 ‘merely’ – just, simply, nothing more than

📘 ‘He did not hate the Winter now, for he knew that it was merely the Spring asleep, and that the flowers were resting.’

– Oscar Wilde, The Selfish Giant

This is a splendid little word that elevates the tone of written or spoken English. I use it mostly in my academic essays or correspondence, and sometimes in my spoken language as well (especially when speaking with adults rather than children).

📝 #10 ‘awe’ – deep wonder, respectful reverence

I imagine that you have all heard the popular, mainly American, expression of ‘Awesome!’ – a very positive, lively affirmation of something.

However, ‘awesome’ originally meant something more elevated: causing or evoking wonder and great respect. This is because the word ‘awe’ itself means ‘an inspired feeling of wonder, respect, and sometimes even fear’.

It is a beautiful word and one that (it seems to me) we should use more often whenever talking about something that ‘takes our breath away’!

📘 “Who art thou?” said the Giant, and a strange awe fell on him, and he knelt before the little child.’

– Oscar Wilde, The Selfish Giant

💡 NOTE ON VOCABULARY: ‘art’ is the older form of ‘are’ and ‘thou’ was also an older English form for saying ‘you’. In other words, the Giant here asked the little child, ‘who are you?’

These are all phrases or words that native English speakers will recognise as more eloquent or expressive than many synonymous contemporary phrases.

Most of them are used more often in written rather than spoken English, but if you are comfortable with beginning to use them while speaking to work or university-level colleagues, go ahead! Even if you make a mistake and use them in the wrong context or out of ‘style’, you will quickly learn from your experience why it was incorrect and how you might improve on your next attempt. 🙂 All the best with it!

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)