Posted by: ranjitratnaike | January 26, 2017

Good Writing Assassins: Cliches


Irritating a reader unintentionally is not difficult.

The annoyances include the poor content and style of the writing; careless editing; bad page layout with not enough ‘white space’ between paragraphs, some spanning more than one page; narrow margins and too small a font size. I grind my teeth if the tight binding prevents me from opening the book with ease.  Did no one look at this book?

Another major annoyance is the use and excessive use of clichés

The dictionary defines a cliché as ‘a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, which has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, and gives as examples, sadder but wiser; strong as an ox.’

Idioms often breed clichés.  The words in an idiom have an implied meaning and not that of the individual words. Examples are, caught red handed; dead as a doornail; a storm in a teacup. Many clichés are the offspring of once thoughtful idioms due to overuse and sometimes from changing the original words.

The cliché sadder but wiser is from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in which the original phrase was sadder and wiser.

The stigma attached to a cliché is its jarring, boring overuse, diluting good prose.

Wikipedia makes an added, powerful observation about clichés, ‘. . . even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.’

It is unlikely the same clichés will irritate each of us equally.

Is there a hard and fast rule about what is tiresome? Indeed, there is a yawning gulf between our likes and dislikes. Some say I have a jaundiced eye and I would retort, ‘I am not a glutton for punishment; I hate clichés, and I am green with envy that you are as cool as a cucumber, have no crisis of confidence in the writer and devour every word.  You may say, All things considered, are a few clichés a storm in a teacup or the end of the world?  If at the end of the day, you are blissfully ignorant of what is and what is not a cliché, I say unkindly, ‘where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise’ (Thomas Grey, 1716-17710).

Many clichés are of biblical origin (

By the skin of my teeth; to have a narrow escape; gird up the loins; a drop in the bucket, and a scapegoat.

Numerous clichés are of Shakespearean origin, for example, break the ice; cold comfort; dead as a doornail; devil incarnate; good riddance; laughing stock; wild-goose chase; spotless reputation. The ghastly cliché, sea change, with its meaning is unchanged, is from The Tempest.

Literary critics brand writers who use clichés as lazy and, or ignorant, with no great love for words, and a disdain for the beauty of the English language.

In a novel, using clichés only in the dialogue (perhaps of one character) is acceptable, and would distinguish that character’s speech pattern.  Sadly and often, clichés destroy good prose and diminishes the author, those employed to delete them or advise the author against their use. Eventually, shoddy editing points to the negligence and irresponsibility of the publisher. Indeed, many are.  Newspaper journalists’ relish using clichés excessively and indiscriminately. Possibly, tutoring on good reporting trumps good writing. Sub-editors and editors of newspapers and magazine and copy editors in publishing houses may ignore clichés because they cannot spot them.

How can an intelligent writer avoid the menace of the cliché?

Be on guard.  Writing is very hard work. If words flow very easily with no effort, be doubly alert! If a sentence seems limp, search and search again for a lurking cliché.  Delete it and see the sentence glow.  Using the most suitable words is an investment no writer would regret.

I imagine words as gems of great value; the necklace is the sentence I will create. A cliché is a rusty nail dangling from the necklace.




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