Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What are the clichés in English?

Some things that might be so obvious to people using only English, are totally invisible to people who have English as their second, third, fourth or fifth language, and are living in a non-English speaking country. I learned English as my fourth language, so it is hard to guess, what are the combinations of words to avoid. I do not have such a strong feeling for the language to be sure of the difference; therefore I decided to write a blogpost about clishés and try to collect some good links and hints for me and other people like me.

Scott Bury, an editor, journalist and writer living in Ottawa, says that clishés are words or "phrases that sounded fresh once, but have had the life squeezed out of them through overuse by lazy writers." So, these are the combination of words that show clearly you being a careless writer. Clishé is like an intellectual shortcut, the difference between art and copies.

So lets now make a short collection of not-to-do-it-at-home-while-writing found online.

List of "new clichés" by Scott Bury from 2011: 

thin blue line, meaning the police force
splitting headache
fallen on deaf ears
snapped like a whip
peppered with gunfire
master plan
pushing the envelope
out of the box
going forward, meaning the future
hit on
tagged and bagged, meaning a dead body
more than meets the eye — the writer’s job is to show the reader more than their eyes will see.

Dr. Michael Spear ´s journalistic clichés from the WritersWeb:

all walks of lifegive the devil his duenever a dull moment
behind the eight ballhook, line, and sinkernipped in the bud
bitter endby hook or crookpatience of Job
calm before the stormin the nick of timepaying the piper
checkered careerin the same boatsands of time
chomping at the bitleaps and boundsselling like hot cakes
cool as a cucumberleave no stone unturnedstick out like a sore thumb
cry over spilled milklock, stock, and barrelwhirlwind tour
fall on deaf earslong arm of the lawwinds of change
from time immemorialmarch of historywriting on the wall

The same writers´ webpage is teaching how to identify clichés by yourself.
When writing, question any comparison or image you are about to use. Cliches often sneak in the barn door (that's a cliche, by the way) when we try to be descriptive. Is the phrase you're about to use one that you've heard frequently in casual conversation, newscasts, and advertising? If so, it is probably a cliche or on its way there.
Worn-out or vague phrases found in student work, and alternates (or at least advice):
everyday lifecan be cut completely or made specific. Consider: everyday life is very different for a college student and, say, a stock broker or homeless person!
in today's societytoday, currently
pros and consadvantages and disadvantages, costs and benefits
peoplewhich ones? Be specific.
societywho is "society"? Too many alternates exist to list. Instead, be specific about which specific group of people considered
this day & agetoday, presently

Pearl Luke ´s collection of

681 Cliches to Avoid in Your Creative Writing

I was going through some of them, there are 681!!! I do not think that I use that many myself, it is probably because I am not so familiar with the overused phrases in the first place, so I am not able to use them. Some of them are actually quite funny, like 

curiosity killed the cat

I do not think I will be using it in my academic writing even though research is all about being curious and many experiments have been made using small animals, usually rats or rabbits. Well, that was a Nordic joke.

David Z. Morris, a writer, musician, and currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of South Florida, compares jargon and clishés in his blog "Minds like knives". Even though the name of his blog "minds like knives" sounds in itself a bit like a clishé to me, I invite you to take a look at what David is writing.
Jargon condenses a whole discourse into a single word, and when used judiciously, and with a consciousness of audience, makes writing richer.  A cliche, by contrast, is the performance of a conventional linguistic gesture that has actually lost whatever original meaning it might have had, a verbal twitch that has more to do with sounding like an academic than actually thinking carefully.     
He has a quite good description about what we should be avoiding while writing academic texts. He does not stop with this explanation but goes on stating that clishés in academic writing "deserve to be banned from the lexicon forever. There's a wealth of these that enrage and frustrate me, utterly empty phrases that cloud minds and swell word counts to absolutely no effect. Since the journals are providing new bad writing all the time, I'm hoping the topic will keep me angry and productive basically forever." 

Well, there you go! Some people really hate clishés and are ready to spend their free time to fight against this kind of bad language. We have to be careful not to be pushed to the walls and having our throats cut off by these angry academic people. 

At the same time I see why they are angry. Some people do misuse the language in a way that should be pointed out. Scott Bury suggests:  "Think of new ways of getting these images across. No, it won’t be easy, but did you think the writer’s job would be easy?" He says that writing must be simple but not easy.     


  1. when is a cliché just a frequently used metaphor ? - Lakoff: Metaphors we live by - sends greetings

  2. Perhaps an important point to note is that when clichés are spoken by a character within a novel, for example, their use serves to define the person speaking them.

    There is, in both Britain and America, definite 'classes' of ones who are more likely to revert to the use of clichés because they form an integral part of their expression.

    Also, in a piece of reverse anti-clichéism, I suppose one can intentionally use a cliché in an unexpected place in the text to draw attention to the emotion with which the mood/place/person is is either felt of perceived!

    Just to be awkward, I would like to also note that for the learner whose English is not at all yet refined, reference to clichés is an initiation into the waywardness of the English language with all its foibles. If I were to learn another language, I would like to be aware of its rash of colloquial and overused terms at some point early in my apprehension, and then choose to drop them later, when I had enough understanding of nuance to do so.

    Evelin, I am looking forward to the post you will do on the way that English is able to pass judgement on different groups of people without 'batting an eyelid'. Non-native English users would be best warned to be aware of this facility of the language. Let future English be liberated and liberating!

  3. After posting the piece I started to think about writing an article about clichés in educational research. I think there are plenty of these overused terms, ideas, sentences etc. Hopefully I carry this idea with me and make something out of it, even though it will take a lot of work.