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Book Review: Fresh Thoughts on Clichés

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:

  1. “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought”
  2. “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:

  • dyed-in-the-wool
  • 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 clichéask 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?

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

15 comments on “Book Review: Fresh Thoughts on Clichés”

  • One person’s cliche is a writer’s copy. 🙂

    Not surprisingly, many that I hate are business-related.

    Think outside the box
    Win-win situation
    Moving up the value chain
    Low-hanging fruit
    Paradigm shift
    Thought leadership

    Stop me. Please. 🙂

  • “Beyond the pale” always makes me think of my second-year Latin teacher. She taught me that this use of “pale” stems from the Latin “palus,” which means “fence.” This makes it easier to understand the phrase as equivalent to “out of bounds.”

  • To complete the thought and offer my two cents on the other three expressions you questioned: “dyed-in-the-wool” means that the wool was dyed before making into yarn or weaving. It means something deeply rooted and unlikely to change. Today’s equivalent: “baked in.” “With bated breath” is better understood as “with (a)bated breath.” The person is holding his or her breath in anticipation. “Toe the line” is probably military in origin, meaning “line-up,” “conform,” or “obey.”

  • Thank you for taking the time, Jim! I appreciate your excellent explanations, and so will readers of this blog.

    Clichés work best when they communicate instantly and vividly. The examples you have explained didn’t work for me. It wasn’t that I did not know what they meant. I had heard them so often that their meanings had become clear. It was that the words themselves did not evoke the images you have provided. “Dyed in the wool”? “Beyond the pale”? Why would those expressions paint a picture for me?

    I very much appreciate your clear explanations. But I still will not use those clichés because their images will not speak to many of my readers.


  • I loved this article. I have to agree with Cathy. A lot of my most painful cliches come from the business world.
    ‘Talk the talk’, which led to having to ‘walk the walk’. this ultimately inspired people to ‘walk the talk’, which I just roll my eyes at every time I hear it.
    While I understand the meaning of these phrases, I find these and most other business cliches to be little more than a way to put up a facade. If you don’t know the latest cliches, then you aren’t one of the cool kids.

  • I think “toe the line” might actually be a prison term, where there is an actual line, and the front row of people put their toes against this line. Or it could be a sports racing term where all the racers start by putting their toes against the line. It means to follow direction exactly as they are given. It’s sometimes difficult not to use cliches as they became cliche because people thought they expressed something so succinctly. But, when you hear them so many times you want to tear your hair out or kill the next person who says it (both cliches), it’s time to think outside the box and consult a thesaurus.

  • Hi, Robert. Thanks for giving your opinion of the walk and talk clichés. I am not sick of “walk the talk” yet. It still communicates clearly to me.

    Your comment reminds me that people do hide behind clichés. They use a cliché to communicate something they do not know how to express well or that they have not thought through sufficiently.

    Thanks for stopping by.


  • I don’t like it, George. I have been seeing and hearing that phrase for several years, and it always distracts me.

    I prefer simply “We will continue to expand our product line.” After all, “will” is future tense.

    What’s your view?


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