Avoiding clichés

What is a cliché?

Clichés are words and phrases that have been used so often that they're no longer very interesting or effective. They may have started out as colourful, inventive phrases, like 'as sick as a parrot', but they've been picked up and used so widely and indiscriminately that they've lost their impact and become stale.

Here are a couple of examples that feature familiar clichéd expressions:

We're still as sick as a parrot about the result.

When it's all said and done, at the end of the day, I can say I made a difference in the world.

(The first comes from a newspaper, the second from the transcript of a television news programme.)

Clichés are part of our everyday speech—we often don't realize that we're using them. They also occur especially frequently in certain types of writing (such as journalism) or areas of activity (such as sport, business, or politics), as demonstrated by the two examples above.

What's wrong with using clichés?

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. Some people just tune out when they hear a cliché, and so they may miss the point that you're trying to make.

Here's a list of some common clichés to look out for and avoid:

How to avoid using clichés

Once you've spotted a cliché in your writing, you need to rephrase your sentence. Here are some tips and strategies to help you do this:

1. Think about what the cliché actually means

Think about the basic sense of the expression: what does it actually mean? You'll probably find that some key words come to mind either as synonyms or as ‘ingredients’ of the overall meaning. Now you can:

  • use one of these key words to replace the cliché altogether
  • look them up in a thesaurus to find alternatives

If you find it difficult to come up with the basic meaning, try looking the cliché up in a dictionary. Then you can use the words in the dictionary definition as a starting point for finding suitable synonyms in a thesaurus.

2. Decide whether you actually need the expression at all

Quite a lot of clichés are just long-winded ‘fillers’ – i.e., words or groups of words used just to maintain the flow of speech, or to pad out a speech or piece of writing. If you identify a clichéd expression of this sort, you can just remove it altogether. Wordy, overused phrases might increase the length of a piece of writing, but they won't improve its general quality.

3. Rewrite your sentence

Here are some examples of how you might go about replacing clichés in your writing, using a selection of expressions from the list of clichés.

First you'll see a sentence containing a cliché (in bold). The second column gives its meaning, with key words highlighted in bold, the third some suggestions for how to take action, and in the final column the original sentence is rewritten without the cliché.

Original sentenceMeaning or key wordsSuggestions for actionRewritten sentence
In this day and age, websites are one of the most significant public faces of any organization.nowadays, todayuse one of the key words instead, or look them up in a thesaurusToday, websites are one of the most significant public faces of any organization.
His first job, in an industrial area of the UK, proved to be a baptism of fire.a difficult introduction to a new job or activityuse the key word or find synonyms in a thesaurusHis first job, in an industrial area of the UK, proved to be a difficult start to his career.
The long-term prospects for the service are looking fairly bleak at this moment in time.nowuse the key word or look up an alternativeThe long-term prospects for the service are currently looking fairly bleak.
At the end of the day, it is the minister himself who has to make the decision.finally, ultimatelyuse one of the key words or look up alternativesUltimately, it is the minister himself who has to make the decision.
The authorities announced that they would not tolerate drugs within the sport in any way, shape, or form.under any circumstancesmainly used for emphasis and can be omitted without changing the meaningThe authorities announced that they would not tolerate drugs within the sport.
In the closing scene, the film comes full circle.return to a previous position or situationreword along the lines of the meaningIn the closing scene, the film returns to the ideas with which it began.
The 1970s were a time when detention without trial was par for the course.what is normal or expected in a certain situationreword along the lines of the meaning, use the key word, or look up synonyms for itThe 1970s were a time when detention without trial was a normal occurrence.
Children's services in the city's hospitals were not fit for purpose, according to the report.meet the required standardsreword using the meaning given, or find synonyms for the key wordsChildren's services in the city's hospitals were not meeting the required standards, according to the report
The company considers that this requirement is, to all intents and purposes, impossible to achieve.in all important respectsmainly used for emphasis and can often be omittedThe company considers that this requirement is impossible to achieve.
With a troubled domestic agenda, the Prime Minister took the path of least resistance.the easiest course of actionreword along the lines of the meaning given or find synonyms for the key wordsWith a troubled domestic agenda, the Prime Minister chose the easiest course of action.

 

Key points to remember about clichés

While you probably can't avoid clichés altogether, remember:

  • Clichés can be a barrier to communication and clear expression.

  • Clichés can often be reduced to just one or two words that convey your meaning in a clearer or more original way.

  • Clichés can sometimes be removed completely without the meaning of a sentence being affected.

 

Back to Clichés and redundant expressions.

You may also be interested in:

Avoiding redundant expressions


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