A Fresh Look at Clichés

Do clichés hit you like a ton of bricks?

Edwin L. Battistella, Writing for
4-minute read
The Quick And Dirty

We tend to fall back on clichés when we're struggling with our writing — for example, maybe we're rushing or maybe the topic is difficult. Be sure to add an editing step to specifically look for clichés, and then devote some time to crafting more original descriptions.

Recently a friend gave me a copy of It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés by lexicographer Orin Hargraves. I was intrigued to read it because I had been wondering about clichés for some time.

Clichés are commonplace linguistic forms or formulas that serve a predicable function, much like idioms (“under the weather”) or stock transitional phrases (“on the one hand”). Clichés can be helpful when a writer needs to establish or invoke a commonly accepted idea in a way that is well-codified and easy to understand. Those same features, codification and simplicity, can also make commonly used phrases appear trite.

Nevertheless, we rely on them. We may use them when we are writing on a deadline (hence their prevalence in workaday journalism) and we may use them when we are speaking extemporaneously and can’t always aim for thoughtful originality. We may use them because we are lazy or don’t really care about the piece we are writing. Whatever the reason, clichés fill the page or the ear with words and present the illusion of description: we write about “a deafening silence,” “an accident waiting to happen,” “a recipe for disaster,” “spilled milk,” and “death blows.”

If clichés are so bad, why do they even exist?  New ones arise all the time as part of the life cycle of linguistic forms. What was once a fresh metaphor becomes popular then all-too-common and then clichéd: the once-evocative “dumpster fire” is already in need of a replacement and the phrase “past its sell-by date" may be past its own sell-by date. The most tattered clichés never disappear: “fit as a fiddle,” “alive and kicking,” “in this day and age,” “a country mile,” “seemed like an eternity,” and “head in the sand” are recycled endlessly in the thrift shop of our vocabularies.

Like idioms, clichés can also become so automatic that we may lose track of their literal senses: “After the storm, builders came out of the woodwork.” “It’s time to bite the bullet on gun control." "I will touch base with you about baseball on Sunday.” “Choosing the correct floral arrangement is not so cut and dried.” The reader or listener may focus on the clumsy, unintended semantic mismatch. And If you are lucky, people will think you are punning!

I began to suspect that we all fall into clichés when the writing gets uncomfortable—when we are commenting on topics that are emotional or profound.

My interest in clichés started when I noticed them in the prose of more than a few good writers. I began to suspect that we all fall into clichés when the writing gets uncomfortable—when we are commenting on topics that are emotional or profound. When we write about new awarenesses, life-changing moments, or matters of great consequence, originality and precision seem to abandon us. We slip into wordy conventional formulas, invoking “a palpable sense of dread,” "a force of nature,” “or a perfect storm."

How does a writer control clichés, or at least become more aware of them? It’s not rocket science.  They often stand out like sore thumbs.

As we proofread, we should give any piece of writing a cliché-check.

As we proofread, we should give any piece of writing a cliché-check, noting phrases that seem overly familiar and deciding if we really need them or if there is perhaps a better way to express the thought. A quick cliché-check would certainly catch those references to rocket science and sore thumbs in the last paragraph.

If we decide to keep an idea, we might come up with a better, fresher way to say it. Consider the lament “I wanted to curl up in a little ball and die.” That clichéd way of expressing embarrassment might be recast as “I wanted to disappear in a puff of smoke.” How about trying “I wanted to erase myself”? Or if we are expressing frustration and had drafted “I ran into a brick wall at every turn, we might consider instead saying “I felt like a mime in an invisible box.”

Monitoring clichés is as much a part of proofreading as minding your commas, apostrophes, and spelling, and it will make better writers of us all.

I hope we are all on the same page about this.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

This piece originally appeared on the OUP blog and appears here with permission.

About the Author

Edwin L. Battistella, Writing for Grammar Girl

Edwin Battistella teaches linguistics and writing at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, where he has served as a dean and as interim provost. He is the author of "Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels: Insulting the President, from Washington to Trump" (OUP, 2020), "Do You Make These Mistakes in English?" (OUP, 2009), "Bad Language" (OUP, 2005), and "The Logic of Markedness" (OUP, 1996).

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