"A breath of fresh air." "Few and far between." "At the end of the day." These are just a few of the clichés examined by Orin Hargraves, an experienced lexicographer and one of our regular contributors, in his new book It's Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches. In this excerpt, Hargraves explains how to "free your speech and writing of unneeded and detrimental clichés."
All natural speakers, and most writers, use clichés from time to time, and language would be a very different and unwieldy medium for communication if we did not have clichés at our disposal to perform a number of mundane tasks. Clichés are often the readiest and most effective tool available for quickly introducing informality into a discourse when the time is right for doing so. They may also help to establish confidence in an audience by introducing to them a note of familiarity from speakers or writers who are dealing with a difficult or daunting subject, or with an unfamiliar audience. From a pragmatic perspective, clichés can establish trust by giving assurance that the writer speaks the reader’s language. None of these judicious uses of cliché, if kept in check, is objectionable.
No writer can or should avoid clichés altogether, all the time—any more than a cook should strive to serve completely novel and unfamiliar dishes at every meal. That would be a needless burden on the cook and an unrewarding experience for the diner. We all look for some degree of familiarity and pattern in our experience, and this applies equally to our experience of reading and listening. The judicious writer and speaker will take the reader or listener on a journey that is grounded in familiarity but that leads to areas unknown and unexplored. On this road, familiar landmarks provide confidence for the travelers; but too many familiar landmarks quickly suggest that no one is going anywhere. Thus, cliché-ridden language is offputting to readers and listeners because it very quickly gives the impression that there is nothing to be learned from it—that the speaker or writer is simply rehearsing something that has been heard or read before, giving expression to things already well known rather than to things never before revealed. Effective writing and speaking is nearly always a matter of invention, and cliché is the opposite of invention; it is repetition, and thus a missed opportunity to exercise creativity or invention. Truly dire cliché is speaking and writing that puts its audience on automatic pilot, because of its overfamiliarity and imprecision; it suggests to its audience that nothing is being said or written that merits attention.
Clichés, like the poor, will always be among us; but like the poor, their constant presence is not a justification for ignoring them, and their constant presence should not lead to the conclusion that they are intractable. Today, readers and listeners are probably subject to more clichés than ever before: we have the opportunity, if we wish to seize it, of listening to an unending stream of unedited chatter on television, radio, and online, much of which consists almost entirely of clichés, variously divided and reassembled. The Internet makes it possible for writing to be placed in the public eye a second after it has exited the writer’s mind—often without judicious inspection by the writer, let alone by an editor who might suggest repairs for faulty or ineffective expressions. The result is that clichés become even more overused, but unfortunately no less virulent.
It is easy to assemble an argument that we have now entered a perilous era in which clichés threaten to overtake language completely because of the declining quality of writing and education, the increasing exposure of everyone to poorer models of language, and the greater cultural influence of celebrities and others whose accomplishments rarely include their ability to model language cleverly and intelligently. This idea, however, is not new. The British scholar and critic Christopher Ricks, in his essay “Clichés” from the late 1970s, wrote “the feeling lately has been that we live in an unprecedented inescapability from clichés. All around us is a rising tide of them; we shall drown and no one will save us.”
Readers who have taken up this book with the hope that it will guide them to words and phrases they might use in the place of worn clichés may be disappointed. I have purposefully avoided suggesting alternatives to clichés in most cases for two reasons: (1) an alternative way of expressing the idea behind a cliché is often itself another cliché and (2) by suggesting that a particular form of words is a workable alternative to a cliché, I would simply be laying the groundwork for another cliché to develop. Clichés are the sterile offspring of a mind that is not engaged in creativity, and following the advice of an authority is surely the opposite of creativity. So rather than propose alternatives, I would direct the reader to George Orwell’s admonition to be wary of letting ready-made phrases do the work of expressing what you want to say:
They will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.
The best way to free your speech and writing of unneeded and detrimental clichés is to construct it thoughtfully, paying close attention to the common tendency to insert a ready form of words in a place where it easily fits. Does it really say what you mean to say? Or can you commandeer words from the vast store of English to do the job for you more effectively, by building up the expression of your ideas from smaller pieces? A writer and speaker who dimly illuminates his subjects with formulaic expressions, while also using such formulas to bind his thoughts together, unwittingly telegraphs to his audience that there is no need for them to pay attention because nothing is being said that they have not heard before.
Excerpted from It's Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches by Orin Hargraves. Copyright © 2014 by Orin Hargraves. Reprinted by arrangement with Oxford University Press, a division of Oxford University. All rights reserved.