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A New Hope for Tired Clichés

cliche

Dictionaries vary in particulars about the definition of cliché, but they all agree that a cliché is not a good thing; you will not find a definition that assesses clichés appreciatively, and chances are that when you use the word, it is either to lament that you do not have at hand a better expression, or to suggest that someone else’s expression suffers from a want of originality or effort.

Despite the low regard in which we all hold clichés, we all use them, certainly in speech, if not in writing. Is there a contradiction here? Does it make sense for us to use expressions frequently that we are also ready to disparage as soon as we spot them? Clichés earn their name by the fact of their frequency, and their frequency is testament to the way in which we readily find uses for them. A cliché in its proper place does an effective job unobtrusively, very often with both significant semantic and pragmatic features. We only find them grating or unfortunate in contexts where something more powerful than a cliché is needed and we recognize that the speaker or writer has thrown away an opportunity to be creative, taking the path of least resistance instead, inserting an expression that is familiar, probably concise, and unfortunately dead on arrival.

Imagine the writer of a letter to the editor, perhaps undertaking the exercise of writing this sort of public letter for the first time: he or she probably has a couple of specific goals in mind. One is to maximize the possibility that the letter will be published. Another, related to this idea, is to sound convincing and authoritative. How might the novice letter writer achieve these two goals? One tack is to try making the letter to the editor sound as much like other published letters to the editor as possible. And how is this accomplished? By copying phrases wholesale from other published letters to editors. Thus is a small genre of cliché born.

clichebookHere are a few clichés I’ve scooped up from casual perusal of some letters to the editor online:

I read with great interest your article on…

I read your article on _______________ and I had to write/have to put in my two cents.

Your article should be required reading for women/members of congress/teenagers who drive (etc.).

I must take issue with your article on ______________.

Your article on ________________ brought tears to my eyes.

Your article on ______________ was right on target/was very welcome/could not have come at a better time.

Are all of these really clichés? Perhaps some of them are formulas, and that’s a distinction I treat in my book, It’s Been Said Before, an exploration of the power of clichés in the life of language. Without clichés, linguistic expression would certainly involve more effort. Clichés give us the liberty to slip in a ready-made phrase with the confidence that it will guide the reader or listener down the path that we have laid out for them. Without clichés we would miss the opportunity to find the point of common ground with our audience that comes from knowing they will recognize and identify with a commonplace way of expressing an idea. But if all writers and speakers did this just as often as was desirable, and no more, the idea of cliché and its attendant associations of overuse and ineffectiveness would never have arisen. However, clichés are usually the result of haste, lack of attention and care, and sometimes ignorance of the alternatives. I’ve tried to set out in my book some sensible guidelines for speakers and writers to recognize when they are slipping into cliché for the wrong reasons, and ways to avoid doing this.

To learn more about clichés, read It’s Been Said Before by Orin Hargraves.

9 Comments

  1. BOB -  August 7, 2014 - 4:59 pm

    Char-Lizard

    Reply
  2. Scyphi -  August 6, 2014 - 2:52 pm

    Like a lot of other things, I find identifying “cliches” to be a mostly relative sort of thing. When you really think about it, just about all English phrases could be called a “cliche” because they are all commonly used. Looking through the comments that are already here, and I see a good few of those sort of phrases popping up, probably without the writer even realizing it.

    Thus it is more of a matter of “how you use it” rather than “how often you use it,” though the two can be closely related. And sure, being down on cliches can help promote creativity, but as the article states, that can also slow understanding; sometimes the added creativity just isn’t needed. Like I’m sure there are plenty of more creative ways you could eat your cereal than by scooping it into your mouth with a spoon, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you NEED to do it more creatively.

    The real trick is finding a nice balance, that “sweet spot” where cliches serve their purpose without being overbearing, and even then I sometimes think society at large is too hard on cliches.

    So, nice article, like the points it conveys greatly.

    Reply
    • johnny ringo -  August 7, 2014 - 4:43 pm

      I believe that what separates a writer is creativity. A writer who has the ability to grab the attention of the reader by self expression. We all read for different reasons to escape the mundane and relax or search into some interesting history of places in time or whether it be just killing time in a waiting room. As we find ourselves flipping pages in a magazine, surfing the web or seeking advise so on and so forth. Depending on how the writer wants to deliver the message whether it be witty or comical or serious and point driven, I feel that based on whatever the topic may be, The expressions of the writer are influenced on whatever the topic is surrounded by. For Instance, a old cowboy using western slang and quick one liner’s describing life on the trail or simply commentating a rider’s style in a rodeo. Another writer’s expression of the taste and style of food or the ambiance and atmosphere of a particular diner. Their writing describing their experience eating or just cruising through a few watering holes etc.. it keeps you entertained at the same time it’s their ability to grab your attention and keep you interested. A writer that can keep you almost coming back to read their articles or information with laughter and informative or interesting facts, it’s a delicate balance creatively put together in their own form and it’s get’s the point across or describes so eloquent a place it almost puts you there as to place a picture or visualize your presence. It is a gift that is pleasant and inviting..pardon my grammar or my form I’m new at this..thanks for letting me share.! CHEERS.!

      Reply
  3. Michael Main -  July 30, 2014 - 8:24 am

    You hit the nail on the head!

    Reply
  4. Kustenwache -  July 29, 2014 - 3:37 pm

    I think I see, therefore I see!

    Reply
  5. Chase Sanders -  July 27, 2014 - 7:19 am

    I agree that cliches allow us to easily and concisely express certain concepts. But since cliches are widely stigmatized in formal writing, they are detrimental to an writer’s credibility. For this reason, I try to abstain from using them.

    Reply
  6. Scia -  July 24, 2014 - 11:48 am

    I generally don’t mind clichés, and do agree that sometimes they can express things quickly. I’ve found, and enjoyed, many occasions where someone would put a twist on a common cliché. And of course, you can’t put a twist on it if it doesn’t exist. So if nothing else, I like how overuse can sometimes encourage creativity.

    Reply
  7. Farsi dictionary -  July 24, 2014 - 2:55 am

    Tired cliches, very interesting topic, well done. thanks.

    Reply
  8. Karen Johnson -  July 23, 2014 - 12:58 pm

    Holy Mother of GOD, when I popped into the beta site, I thought it was some featurless link farm.

    WHAT ARE YOU DOING?

    I can see stripping down, simplifying, but this new look…it’s quite a shock. And it’s a little bit too bare.

    Reply

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