Avoid Clichés Like the Plague

fire hydrantMy dog Cota regularly pees on a particular fire hydrant during our daily walks. Each time he reenacts the hackneyed image of a pooch relieving himself on the faucet that allows firefighters to tap into the municipal water supply, I shake my head and mutter, “So cliché.” A cliché can be a theme, characterization, or situation—such as man’s best friend urinating on a “Johnny pump”—that appears so often in film, television, literature, or art that it becomes boring.

Another type of cliché, which I encounter frequently in my work as an editor, is a sentence or phrase that conveys a common thought or concept—but that has become stale through overuse. An example would be “man’s best friend” in the previous paragraph. While such expressions may have been clever or compelling when they were introduced, they have long since lost their novelty and impact. Because clichés are dull by definition, I will offer just a sampling for illustration:

  • The whole ball of wax
  • The bee’s knees
  • Break the ice
  • Bury the hatchet
  • The elephant in the room
  • A fly on the wall
  • Jump the gun
  • Know the ropes
  • Barking up the wrong tree
  • Raining cats and dogs
  • Run circles around
  • Turn on a dime

Like me, you may have rolled your eyes, snickered, or experienced chest pains at the banality of these sayings. But I encourage you to pause and consider them. At one time, these word combinations colorfully and inventively captured ideas.

To demonstrate this point, I have collected clichés from outside the United States. Unfamiliar to us, they sound more exciting than our own clichés. Yet to the people who live in the originating countries, they are undoubtedly corny and tired.

  • Box of fluffy ducks (New Zealand, meaning, “I am fine; I am happy or doing well.”)
  • In fine fettle (Canada, meaning, “in good health” or “in good condition”)
  • Don’t piss on the chips (England, meaning, “Don’t put a damper on things.”)
  • There is no cow on the ice (Sweden, meaning, “There is no need to panic yet.”)
  • A face like a dropped meat pie (Australia, self-explanatory)

You should ditch clichés because they are unoriginal, ineffective, and lifeless—undesirable qualities for written and oral communication. As Oxford Dictionaries explains, “When you’re writing on a more formal level, it’s better to try to avoid using clichés. They tend to annoy people, especially if they’re overused, and they may even create an impression of laziness or a lack of careful thought.” To me, clichés are instances of imprecise language; as such, they undermine the authority of the author, who appears unable or unwilling to state a point directly. Further, I have in mind the difficulty of translating clichés into other languages (i.e., if the book is enormously successful!), as they may not be understood by other cultures.

There are exceptions. I think clichés are generally acceptable in casual writing and conversation, social media posts, jokes, headlines, book titles, and blog posts about shunning them.

How do you remove a cliché from a business letter, college essay, public speech, work intended for publication, or other piece of formal writing? The first step is to recognize it. Clichés are so ingrained in how we express ourselves that integrating them into what we say is natural. When I identify a cliché in a manuscript, after weeping inwardly, I take the following steps to eradicate it:

  1. I think about the cliché’s meaning.
  2. I think about what the author is trying to say.
  3. If the cliché, despite its imprecision, reflects what the author is trying to say, I “translate” it back into the notion it represents.
  4. I rewrite the content accordingly.

Here are some examples (with clichés and their replacements in bold):

  • Before: After you win the lottery, former acquaintances tend to come out of the woodwork.
  • After: After you win the lottery, former acquaintances tend to appear suddenly or unexpectedly.
  • Before: The new company was in the fast lane and picking up speed.
  • After: The new company was taking aggressive action toward success.
  • Before: My sister made an ordinary remark, but it stopped me in my tracks.
  • After: My sister made an ordinary remark, but it struck me as profound.

At the end of the day, people are sick and tired of clichés. Give the people what they want—a breath of fresh air.

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