Still using cliches? Why they’re as dead as doornails

Cliches make for easy, but lazy writing.

For several lifetimes, it was said of anything and almost everything that it was “the greatest invention since the wheel.” Finally some anonymous hero, tiring of the wheel, called an innovation “the greatest invention since sliced bread.” Exit wheel, enter sliced bread and that’s where the needle has stuck.

“That’s how the ball bounces” has been followed by “That’s how the cookie crumbles” and “That’s how the mop flops.” Theme and two variations: bouncing ball, crumbling cookie, flopping mop. A faint fanfare.

While you are drinking a cup of coffee you can come up with alternatives, vivid and congenial to the tongue, to all those cliches. Then why don’t we do so in our writing and editing? Well, that’s the insidious thing about cliches.

They’re habit forming. They’re sticky. We can disengage ourselves from them, but it requires effort. Which is another way of saying: We’re too lazy.

Cliches do offer one plausible advantage. If they lead to lazy writing, it’s easy writing, which makes for easy (and lazy) reading. Cliches can hardly be misunderstood, so the communication is clear. But while adding to clarity, they subtract from the second element of impact. No phrase the reader has seen and heard hundreds of times can dent ears or dazzle eyes.

There are other drawbacks. Cliches can become encrusted in prose usage, surfacing only to fall ludicrously short of their targets.

“This atom bomb—it’s dynamite!” whispered an awe-stricken radio commentator after Hiroshima. The “mile-a-minute clip” still occasionally pops up in an age in which everything but Congress moves faster than that.

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Off-the-rack or hand-me-down language can be jarringly inappropriate, as when an oculist in a medical paper described the human eye as “something that doctors have to handle with kid gloves.” And if that doesn’t make your teeth chatter, only last night I heard a State Department spokesman giving the word on the Israeli-Arab confrontation. Negotiations are going smoothly, he said, but added—I could hear it coming; my stomach muscles tightened—”There are still some bugs to be ironed out.”

You can iron out the wrinkles. You can get out the bugs.

But anyone who talks about ironing out bugs is stuck to cliche like a fly to flypaper.

The late Digby Whitman was the director of communications for Employers Insurance of Wausau, and an essayist for The Ragan Report for many years.

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