Contemporary Language Debate: Cliches

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Links in this essay will take you to information about the usage experts and their work. Numbers in parentheses are page references in the sources.




  On the matter of clichés, usage experts take a moderate stance. Patricia O'Conner's advice is typical: "Think of clichés as condiments, the familiar ketchup, mustard, and relish of language. Use when appropriate, and don't use too much" (198). The problem, says O'Conner, is that we can't possibly eliminate all clichés: "It would take a roomful of Shakespeares to replace them with fresh figures of speech, and before long those would become clichés too" (198).


       Bryan Garner agrees, though with tongue in cheek: "[Clichés are] occasionally just the ticket, but only when no other phrase fills the bill. Despite that standard, you'll find more clichés in modern writing than you can shake a stick at" (158).


       Though most experts allow an occasional cliché, they by no means favor lazy reliance on threadbare expressions. For example, even though she speaks of clichés as "condiments," O'Conner devotes more than eight pages to bashing her least favorite. Consider three pithy entries in her list:


Bite the bullet. Save your teeth. (169)

Can of worms. Don't open this one too often. And don't unnecessarily disturb its beastly cousins nest of vipers and hornet's nest. (200)

Cool as a cucumber. Using this too much is uncool. (200)


Sometimes, says Bryan Garner, it's possible to breathe new life into a cliché—saying, for example, that “a farmer might tend to his better calf" or that "bankruptcy is sometimes a fate worse than debt" (158). René Cappon makes the same point: "If there is one way to squeeze juice from a cliché, it's by twisting it to yield a new and surprising meaning: Bedfellows make strange politics" (87). Here are a few more nicely twisted clichés:


He knows all about art, but he doesn't know what he likes.

—James Thurber

The victor belongs to the spoils.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald

Some things have to be believed to be seen.

—Ralph Hodgson


To sum up: The rule against clichés still holds, but it is a rule of thumb that admits the occasional exception.



Source: Hacker Handbooks (Boston: Bedford, 2013).