Cliches and Trite Expressions

Lesson Content

Inquire: Clichés Can Run, But They Can’t Hide

Overview

When it comes to clichés, all that glitters is not gold. You might hear someone without a care in the world using clichés, but if you believe that laughter is the best medicine, all’s well that ends well. And even if you’re scared out of your wits, don’t get your knickers in a knot. Because all’s fair in love and war.

The preceding paragraph contained seven clichés. By the time you finished the paragraph, you may have reached the conclusion that its writer didn’t have much say.

That’s the nature of clichés. Clichés are trite expressions that reduce effectiveness in communication. And, if you use clichés in your academic writing, you’re probably not going to get a good grade. That cloud does not have a silver lining.

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Big Question

What effect do clichés have on your speech and writing, and what can you do to correct it?

Watch: Watch Your P’s and Q’s

Read: Clichés Don’t Make the Heart Grow Fonder

Overview

A cliché is a word or phrase that has lost its meaning and effectiveness over time. These words and phrases have become so stale that while they may have once conveyed a stimulating message or a vivid image, they no longer encourage imaginative participation from the listener or reader.

If you’re advised not to cry over spilt milk, you don’t mentally picture a puddle of milk on the floor, feel how unhappy it might make you, and then say, “Yes. I see your point.” The phrase’s ability to inspire its own image is gone.

While clichés have a stealthy way of sneaking into writing, they present a hidden benefit — when you catch a cliché, it can force you to find a unique, intriguing new way of expressing your idea.

Clichés Aren’t Fit as a Fiddle

The general rule about clichés is to remove them from your writing.

DecorativeYou want your writing to be cogent and compelling. You want to leave your reader — whether it’s an instructor, an editor, or a friend on Facebook — with a sense that the time spent reading your thoughts and observations was not wasted.

And that’s not the effect clichés have on readers — or on listeners, for that matter. Clichés lessen the impact of your ideas. They give the impression that if it wasn’t important enough for you to find an original way to say it, your idea probably isn’t that important. It’s better to try to make your point with fresh language.

Clichés Can Be Diamonds in the Rough

However, clichés will probably come to mind when you’re writing early drafts. Fear not when they do. Be attentive to their presence, and use them to prompt yourself to find a new wording.

You may think that the admonition not to use clichés will make your writing less colorful, that it’s asking you to tone down your expression to the point of boredom. Actually, quite the opposite is true. This rule can encourage you to make your writing more colorful and compelling, and in the process, it can encourage you to make your thinking more colorful and compelling.

Use clichés to train your mind not to rest on expressions formed by others. Train yourself to work with language and ideas and originate your own sayings. Who knows? Maybe someday they will become clichés.

To Be a Good Writer or Not To Be a Good Writer

There’s an old joke about Shakespeare’s play Hamlet — it would be a great piece of art if it weren’t for all those clichés.

The joke is, of course, that when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, they probably weren’t clichés. More than likely, Shakespeare originated them, or at least most of them. When you are the originator of a saying that eventually becomes a cliché, you are said to have “coined” it.

DecorativeHere’s a partial list of common sayings that came from Hamlet, most of which are now considered cliché. They may surprise you as having been written by Shakespeare. Some of these phrases have been so widely used that it’s not uncommon for people to believe they are from the Christian Bible.

– Neither a borrower nor a lender be.

– To thine ownself be true.

– There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

– Shuffle off this mortal coil.

– Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

– The play’s the thing.

– …the primrose path…

– Get thee to a nunnery.

– Woe is me.

– The lady doth protest too much.

– The dog will have his day.

– Sweets to the sweet.

– As white as snow.

– Brevity is the soul of wit.

– Make your hair stand on end.

– The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

– In my heart of hearts.

– In my mind’s eye.

– There’s method in my madness.

– What a piece of work.

And the list would not be complete without what may be the most quoted line from Shakespeare:

– To be or not to be, that is the question.

Thought-Terminating Clichés

Have you ever been in a conversation, in the middle of making your point, and suddenly felt your momentum evaporate? It could have been because the person with whom you were speaking dropped into the mix a thought-terminating cliché.

– Do you have to overthink everything?

– Oh no, this again.

– I’m not going down that road.

These sorts of clichés were identified by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton as “thought-terminating clichés.”1 They are a conversational gambit used to gain an advantage. They are employed to distract the speaker, to deflect the focus of what is being discussed, and to protect the one using the cliché from a conversational direction in which they feel unable to participate effectively.

Thought-terminating clichés are sometimes used unintentionally, an unconscious result of hearing them spoken by others previously, and sometimes they are practiced.

Ronald Reagan famously used the thought-terminating cliché gambit against Jimmy Carter during the presidential debates in 1980. Whenever Carter would go on the offensive against a policy point in Reagan’s gubernatorial record, Reagan would chuckle and say, “There you go again.” The phrase became the defining phrase of the 1980 campaign. As a 2008 article looking back on it would state, “Reagan was a master at capturing a debate moment that everyone will remember. His ‘there you go again’ line defused his opponent’s attack.”2

But, don’t let this defuse you from your mission to become proficient in your academic writing. While clichés might get you elected president, they’re sure to get you a bad score on your school papers. Unless you’re a fiction writer and are using clichés as a character tag in dialog, it’s best to rewrite them.

1Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China, 1961
2Bauder, David (2008-10-08). “So far, debates lack the memorable lines of past”. Associated Press. Archived from the original on 2008-10-11. Retrieved 2008-11-05

Reflect

Poll: When to Never Use a Cliché

In your writing and/or preferred readings, do you believe that the use of clichés always diminishes the quality of the writing?

Or are there instances where a well-placed cliché can actually elevate the work?

Expand: The Writing’s on Some Walls

Investigate

Clichés are trite expressions. While they may not have been dull at their inception, after much repetition over time, any early originality has been worn out. One of the many critiques you don’t want to receive about your writing is that it’s worn out.

Clichés lack the explicitness and complexity necessary for effective writing, and can keep your ideas from making a lasting impression.

The Origin of the Term “Cliché”

The word “cliché” comes to us from French. When printing presses were in use, the sound produced by the plates phonetically sounded like “cliché,” from clicher — to click. Since the plates repeatedly struck each other, the word “cliché” came to mean an oft-repeated phrase.

Unless used for specific purposes in fiction writing — generally in dialog and typically for laughs — clichés and trite expressions will not advance you nor your cause. They can reduce the persuasiveness of what you’re trying to say. They may even annoy your reader or listener to the point that instead of gaining their support, you might actively push them away.

Opposites Don’t Attract

DecorativeThe point that clichés and trite expressions can push readers and listeners away is made to great comic effect in the 1999 movie Mystery Men. Mystery Men is a superhero comedy film about a group of lesser superheroes with mediocre powers who are called upon to save the day. While training for the upcoming battle, their instructor The Sphinx, played by Wes Studi, has a trite way of speaking in circles. This annoys Ben Stiller’s character Mr. Furious to no end. The conflict, predictably, builds to a hilarious showdown.

The Sphinx is addressing the trainees:

“He who questions training, only trains himself in asking questions. When you care for what is outside, what is inside cares for you. To summon your power over the conflict to come, you must first have power over that which conflicts you.”

At this point, Mr. Furious snaps:

“Okay, am I the only one who finds these sayings just a little bit formulaic? ‘If you want to push something down, you have to pull it up. If you want to go left, you have to go right.’”

To which The Sphinx replies:

“Your temper is very quick, my friend, but until you learn to master your rage…”

Mr. Furious finishes his sentence:

“…your rage would become your master?”

And then Mr. Furious storms off. Few of us would blame him.

Good Things Come to Those Who Aren’t Clichéd

Here are a few more reasons why you don’t want to use clichés and trite expressions in your writing.

1. They are not specific enough to be convincing. Their nature is to be general, vague, and nonspecific. If you have a specific point to make, don’t try to make it with a generality.

2. They make you appear lazy. It’s easier to throw in a hackneyed saying than to put in the mental effort necessary to find a new way of looking at the familiar. You’ll come across like you’re not willing to do the work required.

3. They are boring. Unless boring is the effect you’re trying to achieve, don’t inflict clichés and trite expressions on your reader.

4. They reduce your credibility. You want your writing to show that you know what you’re talking about. If you use clichés, it appears you must rely on others rather than yourself to be the source of authority, and your effectiveness will be diminished.

5. Writing with clichés and trite expressions makes you appear clichéd and trite.

Look through your finished papers and make sure that if you have included a cliché, you’ve used it in such a way that it achieved an original, positive, intentional effect.

If not, rewrite it.

Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings

681 Clichés to Avoid in Your Writing

A list of phrases to avoid using

Worst Clichés: 13 Expressions You Shouldn’t Be Caught Dead Using

A more in-depth look at a few clichés

7 Clichés to Never Use in a Job Interview

A video overview of clichés to avoid when interviewing

Lesson Glossary

Terms

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  • cliché
    a word or phrase that has lost its meaning and effectiveness over time

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Vicky Woodward for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0

Video and Activity authored by the TEL Library. CC BY SA 4.0

Media Sources

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DecorativeClouds Sky SunPublicDomainPicturesPixabayCC 0
DecorativeCouple Holding Hands WalkingFree-PhotosPixabayCC 0
DecorativeHamletSkullHCSealousVariousWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeViolin Music Instrument5477687PixabayCC 0

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