Before you discount all clichés as weak, lazy writing, consider a few ideas from Orin Hargraves’ new book, It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés (Oxford University Press, 229 pages, $24.95 in hardcover). I recommend the book for writers, editors, and others who care about words.
To get us on the same page (a cliché!), here are two definitions of cliché that Hargraves quotes:
- “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought”
- “a trite phrase or expression”
But beyond those definitions, Hargraves, a linguist and author of language reference books, suggests that to be a bad cliché, an expression must be both overused and ineffective. Some expressions are used often by everyone–and thus overused–yet they remain effective. Other clichés, although ineffective in a report or a formal communication, may work well in speeches and informal writing to create a bond or set the right tone with the audience.
For instance, Hargraves defends the expressions below–and many more–as effective clichés. I’ve included brief versions of his views.
- “Shed light on” — three one-syllable words that concisely communicate “make known certain facts about.”
- “Breath of fresh air” — a clear idea communicated in a few crisp words, but adjectives such as welcome and much needed weaken it, says Hargraves.
- “Needle in a haystack” — an apt description of something that is very hard to find.
- “In a nutshell” — “an agreeable and popular way of packaging a summary,” as long as what follows is short.
- “Deliver the goods” — a concise way of saying “provide what is promised or expected.”
- “Face the music”– three short words that crisply say “take responsibility for.”
- “Grind to a halt”– a useful expression when applied to a huge enterprise that stops working.
- “Damn someone with faint praise”– a powerful expression when used correctly.
He also likes these concise, energetic clichés when used properly:
- blow someone’s cover
- drive home a point
- tie the knot
- rubber stamp
- take a back seat
I agree with most of Hargraves’ decisions about clichés. But he does defend some that frustrate me. His point, though, is that as readers, we decide whether a phrase is trite or just right. Hargraves believes the following clichés are effective when used certain ways, but they leave me guessing what they mean:
- beyond the pale
- with bated breath
- toe the line
Like me with those expressions, your international readers may have to guess or work too hard to figure out many clichés.
Hargraves lists these everyday expressions, among many others, as clichés we can easily edit:
- very real
- absolutely nothing
- generally tend
- entirely possible
- perfectly normal
- general consensus
- freely admit
- distinct advantage
- close proximity
- abundantly clear
- abject failure
- in actual fact
- the fact of the matter is
- know for a fact
- know full well
- fully intend
- a world of difference
- a palpable sense
- proven track record
- in any way, shape, or form
- as a general rule of thumb
- more often than not
I liked It’s Been Said Before most when I learned something new or got a fresh take on an old phrase. For example, Hargraves discussed “double down,” whose constant use by television journalists has been driving me nuts. I hear the expression so often that I did not realize, as Hargraves explained, that “double down” means “engage in risky behavior when there is already danger present.” The term apparently comes from the game blackjack.
Hargraves attacked many expressions I love to hate, among them:
- best-kept secret (Who is keeping the secret? And why are you revealing it?)
- chicken with its head cut off (Ick!)
- mists of time (Was it more humid long ago?)
- sick to death of (Why haven’t you died?)
- defies description (Oh, come on–try!)
The author dealt with “play the race card,” a cliché I hate. He believes it is an apt phrase when it means “use the matter of race to gain unfair advantage.” Fair enough, but these days it’s nearly always thrown out in response to a person who simply mentions the issue of race or racial inequality.
Hargraves repeatedly emphasizes that his book is not exhaustive, but I kept hoping he would write about “boots on the ground.” Although once fresh and visual (as many clichés originally were), it is used so often that it minimizes the idea of human beings–not just boots–in war zones.
When deciding whether to use a cliché, ask yourself Hargraves’ questions:
- Does it really say what you mean to say?
- Can you commandeer words from the vast store of English to do the job for you more effectively?
If you are considering It’s Been Said Before for your writer’s toolbox, do not be put off by Chapter 1 and the Afterthoughts chapter, which are available for preview online. Although interesting and useful, they offer few examples of clichés and are more academic than the rest of the book.
Although I have now read virtually all of It’s Been Said Before, I will find a spot for it on my bookshelf. It’s a practical, smart book that I’ll consult again.
By the way, which clichés drive you crazy?