Eat your words

They are bad news, go down like a lead balloon, and simply won’t cut it. In writing and any public speaking, we are advised to give them a wide berth, to avoid them like the plague or face the dog house. But are they a necessary evil?

“A phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought,” says the Oxford English Dictionary. Yes, a cliché. And the above examples have only scratched the surface. There are too many to count in any language. In terms of English, The Cat’s Pyjamas: The Penguin Dictionary Of Clichés by Julia Cresswell lists over 1500 sourced clichés, but there are more, and it must be impossible to keep up when there are new ones passing from originality into dullness all the time.

Any guide to writing will exhort us to avoid them at all costs on the basis they are trite, predictable, lazy, and the very opposite of creative. The editing tool I use, ProWritingAid has a function to help writers catch clichés so they can be eradicated (though I find this function a little fanatical. It disapproved of me describing something as ‘ginger’ in colour, for instance, which I feel to be extreme).

There’s no question that overuse can be distracting. I was reading an otherwise enjoyable and reasonably well written book last week and found the number of ‘days dawning bright and clear’ and ‘smiles playing across lips’ did become somewhat irritating. So much so, I began a private game of cliché-spotting.

It’s the same in any formal or public speaking… Clichés show you lack originality, suggest you are rehashing your ideas, indicate over-generalisation and lack of evidence or precision… And so on. We get it: in a nutshell, using them is a bad call. The rule might as well be written in stone.

It all starts so well, phrases that now are clichés were once original, inventive, and colourful language, possibly humorous, neat little packages of wit and insight. Famously, Shakespeare coined many phrases we still use today (some in slightly different form): with bated breath; in stitches, a sea change; break the ice; the be all and end all; cold comfort… Chaucer gave us “busy as a bee”, Walter Scott “cut of your jib”, Alexander Pope “fools rush in…”, and Jonathan Swift the Land of Nod, as well as “The sight of you is good for sore eyes” (a sight for sore eyes) in his work ‘A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingeneous Conversation’ (now there’s a title we could learn from). Then we have one of the most famous book titles as well as a phrase to describe a paradoxical situation in Heller’s Catch-22. Many clichés are, of course, biblical: cast the first stone; bite the dust; go the extra mile… However, overuse makes these many phrases tired and all but meaningless out of original context.

Is there ever a time to use them, such as when writing dialogue, perhaps? Because people do talk in platitudes quite a lot, don’t they? Well writing guidance has the answer to that one, too: written dialogue, at least in a novel or short story, is not about reproducing a real-life conversation but about giving the impression of realistic speech.

You can tie yourself up in knots trying to avoid cliches

Studies that have transcribed and analysed real-life conversation (by native speakers) reveal numerous characteristics that relate to a lack of fluency, including hesitations, self-interruptions, redundancy, repetitions, fragments, false and repeated starts, and ‘agreeable noise making’ (uhu), not to mention the fact that real speech is rarely as varied in its grammar and vocabulary as written language. Too much of this stuff in written dialogue and the reader would go insane with boredom in minutes.

I would conclude that using cliché in dialogue is a bit like using swear (curse) words, or indeed any of the above ‘real-life’ characteristics, such as um or err to show hesitation: a little goes a long way and such words will appear mainly in dialogue (as a rule of thumb!)

Still, clichés have their uses. They may tell us something about a character, for instance, or can be a way to communicate in a brief and effective manner (can you say something that means “tip of the iceberg” in a quicker, easier way in English, without tying yourself in knots?) As Terry Prachett, a writer who liked to have fun with clichés wrote: “The reason that clichés become clichés is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication.” A man after my own heart.

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15 thoughts on “Eat your words

  1. Yikes libre paley!! Now you have me questioning my own content? I am watchful of using tooo many metaphors and I think I’m okay with the clichés? A fascinating post, I enjoy reading your thoughts on creative writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 😮 Oh no, my recent post has three yes THREE clichés in the first paragraph.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I keep using them too – I deliberately put in some cliches here, but only later realised I had said ‘at all costs’ unintentionally – but I am styling it out and pretending I meant to do that. I think if it’s not a creative piece of writing, then surely clear communication is the main criterion?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Incidentally the post in question is Untitled. YES clear communication is a blog necessity which is darned lucky for me!! Btw I’m preparing a response post.


  2. I think cliches have their place and can be fun – but they can be tie -curlingly cringe if used ponderously. Oh well, back to the drawing board lol

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Agreed, they can be fun, and all work and no play makes the world a dull place! Yes, the key thing is to play with language, and as with Prachett, why not include cliche as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Your tips on writing are always so interesting – cliche in writing is always blurry, for often we as writer fail to recognize because of our biases – Do you like ProWritingAid

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree the lines are blurred – what is cliche and what is actually idiom is a whole other matter. Then there are cliches used in, say, American English that I don’t recognise as such because we don’t use them in other English forms.
      I think a tool like ProWritingAid is worth using – I find it can be crude (e.g. it spots grammar errors but also non-errors, and marks up all words ending in ‘ly’ as adverb!), and we’ll never agree on use of passive voice. However, it does spot things I didn’t and is useful for identifying repetition and echoing, over-use of adverbs, and making me think about pacing. Not a total substitute for line by line editing of course, but good for starting to sharpen up the text.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You said it so well. I never used an editing tool. I will give it a shot. Thank you for your detailed explanation. Much appreciate it

        Liked by 1 person

  4. An excellent post. I must watch my words

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading Derrick.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Never used…and I think that ProWritingAid would make me feel depressed …
    Good post 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ProWritingAid can feel irrationally bossy, just have to let it know who’s in charge 🙂
      Thank you for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

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