A few weeks ago my English 12 students and I had a pretty good conversation about clichés. The subject came up because I had been noticing that on the whole they are a fairly competent group of writers, save one minor glitch: many of them make liberal use of clichés–those expressions in a language that are so overused they have lost most of their original meaning and have virtually no rhetorical power.
Here are some of the most common clichés that have appeared in my English 12 students’ writing (and have been little seen since our discussion about it):
look on the bright side
blessing in disguise
piece of cake
caught off guard
heart of gold
in a nutshell
start from scratch
pay your dues
make a difference
And my personal favorite, the newest cliché to join this dubious collection . . .
first world problems
One thing that’s rather amusing is to stick as many clichés as you can into a single paragraph. You end up with something really hideous like this:
“Susan, who has a heart of gold, was caught off guard by the incident. Yet it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It taught her to leave her comfort zone and look on the bright side instead. The bottom line is, not everything is a piece of cake; sometimes you have to start from scratch and pay your dues. Susan’s worries were first world problems in a nutshell.”
If that paragraph sickens you, then you are probably a good writer (or at least a skilled and experienced reader). On the other hand, if you’re thinking, “Hey, that’s a great paragraph! I wish I could write like that!” then please learn this first foundational principle of writing: Good grammar is not good writing. The paragraph above is grammatically correct but it is terrible writing. There are many ways that writing can be terrible; the paragraph above is terrible because it is nothing but clichés. If you want to avoid terrible writing, then this is one way to do it. Avoid clichés.
The challenge, of course, is what to write in their place. That’s the problem with clichés. They aren’t only lazy writing; they are also lazy thinking. Since language is our primary vehicle of thought it follows that persistent use of clichés is often a way to avoid thinking clearly and precisely about whatever it is we are trying to say. Let me leave you with a rewrite of the horribly clichéd paragraph above (the Susan paragraph, assuming it hasn’t already been vaporized from your memory). This time I’ll avoid all clichés, and I’ll try to be as precise as possible. The result might look something like this:
“Susan is generally a kind and compassionate person but she was still surprised by the incident. Although it didn’t seem like it would be beneficial to her in any way, it actually turned out to be a valuable experience. It taught her the importance of risk and the need for optimism in one’s point of view. Sometimes pain is inevitable and you have to struggle before you can prosper. Susan realized that her worries were not genuine problems but trivialities, the kind of things only taken seriously by the wealthy and powerful but of little consequence to anyone else.”
I’m not sure how good that paragraph is, but I’ll tell you one thing: it’s light-years better than the previous one. (Yes, “light years better” is a cliché. And yes, I did that on purpose.)