What is a cliché?
Here are some examples of familiar clichéd expressions:
- We’re still as sick as a parrot about the result.
- When it’s all said and done, at the end of the day, I can say I made a difference in the world.
The first comes from a newspaper, the second from the transcript of a television news programme.
Clichés are words and phrases that have been used so often that they’re no longer very interesting or effective. They may have started out as a colourful, inventive phrase, like as sick as a parrot, but they’ve been picked up and used so widely and indiscriminately that they’ve lost their impact and become stale.
Clichés are part of our everyday speech – we often don’t realize that we’re using them. They also occur especially frequently in certain types of writing (such as journalism) or areas of activity (such as sport, business, or politics), as demonstrated by the two examples above.
What’s wrong with using clichés?
When you’re writing on a more formal level, it’s better to try to avoid using clichés. They tend to annoy people, especially if they’re overused, and they may even create an impression of laziness or a lack of careful thought. Some people just tune out when they hear a cliché and so they may miss the point that you’re trying to make.
Here’s a list of some common clichés to look out for and avoid:
- at the end of the day
- back on track
- the fact of the matter
- few and far between
- a level playing field
- in this day and age
- to all intents and purposes
- when all’s said and done
- in the final analysis
- come full circle
- par for the course
- think outside the box
- avoid someone or something like the plague
- in the current climate
- mass exodus
- at this moment in time
- the path of least resistance
- a baptism of fire
- in any way, shape, or form
- fit for purpose
Once you’ve spotted a cliché in your writing, you need to rephrase your sentence.
Here are some tips and strategies to help you do this.
1. Think about what the cliché actually means
Think about the basic sense of the expression: what does it actually mean? You’ll probably find that some key words come to mind either as synonyms or as ‘ingredients’ of the overall meaning. Now you can:
o use one of these key words to replace the cliché altogether
o look them up in a thesaurus to find other alternatives
If you find it difficult to come up with the basic meaning, try looking the cliché up in a dictionary. Then you can use the words in the dictionary definition as a starting point for finding suitable synonyms in a thesaurus.
2. Decide whether you actually need the expression at all
Quite a lot of clichés are just long-winded ‘fillers’, i.e. words or groups of words used just to maintain the flow of speech, or to pad out a speech or piece of writing. If you identify a clichéd expression of this sort, you can just remove it altogether. Wordy, overused phrases might increase the length of a piece of writing but they won’t improve its general quality.
3. Rewrite your sentence
Here are some examples of how you might go about replacing clichés in your writing. First you’ll see a sentence containing a cliché (in bold). The second column gives its meaning, with key words highlighted in bold, the third gives some suggestions for how to take action, and in the final column the original sentence is rewritten without the cliché.
|Original sentence||Meaning or key words||Suggestions for action||Rewritten sentence|
|In this day and age, websites are one of the most significant public faces of any organization.||nowadays, today||use one of the key words instead, or look them up in a thesaurus||Today, websites are one of the most significant public faces of any organization.|
|His first job, in an industrial area of the UK, proved to be a baptism of fire.||a difficult introduction to a new job or activity||use the key words or find synonyms in a thesaurus||His first job, in an industrial area of the UK, proved to be a difficult start to his career.|
|The long-term prospects for the service are looking fairly bleak at this moment in time.||now||use the key word or look up an alternative||The long-term prospects for the service are currently looking fairly bleak.|
|At the end of the day, it is the minister himself who has to make the decision.||finally, ultimately||use one of the key words or look up alternatives||Ultimately, it is the minister himself who has to make the decision.|
|The authorities announced that they would not tolerate drugs within the sport in any way, shape, or form.||under any circumstances||mainly used for emphasis and can be omitted without changing the meaning||The authorities announced that they would not tolerate drugs within the sport.|
|In the closing scene, the film comes full circle.||return to a previous position or situation||reword along the lines of the meaning||In the closing scenes, the film returns to the ideas with which it began.|
|The 1970s were a time when detention without trial was par for the course.||what is normal or expected in a certain situation||reword along the lines of the meaning, use the key word, or look up synonyms for it||The 1970s were a time when detention without trial was a normal occurrence.|
|Children’s services in the city’s hospitals were not fit for purpose, according to the report.||meet the required standards||reword using the meaning given, or find synonyms for the key words||Children’s services in the city’s hospitals were not meeting the required standards, according to the report|
|The company considers that this requirement is, to all intents and purposes, impossible to achieve.||in all important respects||mainly used for emphasis and can often be omitted||The company considers that this requirement is impossible to achieve.|
|With a troubled domestic agenda, the president took the path of least resistance.||the easiest course of action||reword along the lines of the meaning given or find synonyms for the key words||With a troubled domestic agenda, the president chose the easiest course of action.|
While you probably can’t avoid clichés altogether, remember:
- Clichés can be a barrier to communication and clear expression.
- Clichés can often be reduced to just one or two words that convey your meaning in a clearer or more original way.
- Clichés can sometimes be removed completely without the meaning of a sentence being affected.
This guide on how and why to avoid cliches is taken from our Writing Skills section on the premium version of Oxford Dictionaries Online. Featuring accurate and clear guidance on grammar, spelling, and punctuation, the Writing Skills section also has indispensable advice on style and usage, including help on selecting the correct level of language for different situations.
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