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.
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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