Understanding (and Avoiding) Clichés

See also: Formal and Informal Writing

Clichés are words or phrases that have been overused in writing or speech, and have therefore become largely meaningless. They include examples such as the classic ‘leave no stone unturned’ and the more modern ‘it is what it is’. In many ways, much ‘jargon’, especially management jargon, has now become a cliché as well, because it has little meaning, and is often used solely to fill space or make the user sound important.

This page discusses the effect of including clichés in your speech or writing, and why it is better to avoid them. It suggests some example clichés, though there are many others, and provides some suggestions for alternative phrases.

The Effect of Clichés

Research shows that people are so used to seeing and hearing clichés that they literally overlook them in writing or speech.

As far as the reader is concerned, a cliché might as well not be there. The eye (and brain) simply skips over the words. In other words, these phrases are not just meaningless, they are actively ignored. Their use can also make a writer look lazy and unimaginative.

Worse still, some clichés have taken on almost the opposite meaning because we are so cynical about them. For example, when you hear the phrase ‘We’ll leave no stone unturned”, how often have you assumed that it actually means “We won’t do anything, but we want you to think we will”? Similarly, the phrase ‘I promise’ almost always means ‘I won’t manage this’.

It is therefore essential to avoid using clichés in your writing if you wish it to have any impact, or even to seem interesting.

Identifying Clichés

To avoid clichés, you need to be able to identify them effectively.

The box below shows some examples of clichés, but there are many more. You may find our page on Deciphering Jargon helpful in identifying some more.

Examples of Clichés

The following list highlights some common clichés used in English.

It is by no means comprehensive.

It is also important to be aware that clichés are often different in different cultures and in different environments.

  • In a nutshell.
  • It’s not rocket science.
  • At long last.
  • Going forward.
  • All walks of life.
  • At the end of the day.
  • Bring to the table.
  • I'm giving it 110%.
  • Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today.
  • As bold as brass.
  • Uphill battle.
  • If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  • Too little, too late.
  • Sleeping like the dead.
  • Actions speak louder than words.
  • Two wrongs don’t make a right.
  • Never say never.
  • Laughter is the best medicine.
  • People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

You can probably think of both other examples of clichés and/or people who overuse them both in writing and also in verbal communication.

One way to identify clichés is to consider your own reaction to certain phrases. For example:

  • Do you find yourself irritated by someone’s use of a particular phrase?
  • Do you feel that you are hearing or reading a word or phrase a lot?
  • Does your eye or ear skip over the phrase, making it a bit like verbal ‘white noise’?

All these are signs of a potential cliché—in both your own and someone else’s writing.

Avoiding Clichés

Spotting a cliché in your own writing or speech is often harder than seeing them in someone else’s words. After all, if you thought it was a cliché, you wouldn’t use it!

Some ways that you can spot and avoid clichés in your own writing include:

1. Be aware of what you are writing

The best way to avoid clichés is simply to become more aware of what you are writing.

Clichés tend to slip in when we stop concentrating—effectively, when our brains switch off a bit. They really are a sign of your brain being lazy. Try to concentrate on what you are writing, and make sure that you are phrasing it as clearly and succinctly as possible. Think about your intended audience, and what they need to know, and you are likely to write more effectively.

There is more about this in our page on Know Your Audience.

2. If possible, put aside your finished piece of writing for a day or so and read it again

When you are familiar with a piece of writing, you often do not see its flaws.

It is therefore good practice to put your writing aside for 24 hours, before coming back to it and reading it over again. You are more likely to spot typos and other issues, including the use of clichés.

One very good question to ask at that point is whether your brain is skipping over any phrases. That is a sure sign of a cliché. Also check whether you have included any common phrases that may not yet be clichés, but are coming close.

Ideally, you want your work to be fresh and original.

New analogies and metaphors are good, but tired old phrases, or previously used ideas are not.

3. Check for any unnecessary padding

Using clichés often feels like unnecessary padding. You may therefore find that you have used them subconsciously if you are worried about reaching a required word count.

Phrases such as ‘going forward’, and ‘at the end of the day’ are often subconsciously used as a way to pad out the text. However, they have no real meaning—even to you.

If you can simply delete a whole phrase without changing the meaning of the sentence, it may well be a cliché. Cliché or not, it is almost certainly irrelevant!

4. Try rephrasing your text to make it more concise

Another good tip is to try to shorten your writing.

Making your sentences more concise, and using shorter, simpler words and phrases is usually a helpful way to ensure that you are not using either clichés or jargon.

5. Ask somebody else to proof-read your work

Regardless of the need to avoid clichés, it is often helpful to ask someone else to read your work.

If you are a student, you can read and check each other’s assignments. This will help to ensure that you are not using clichés or other unnecessary padding words and phrases. It will also check whether your work is as clear as possible, or if any sentences are over-complex. Finally, it can help to identify whether you have inadvertently included any typos or grammatical errors.

A final thought

Avoiding clichés is not impossible—but it can still be quite challenging unless you are concentrating. The best way to do this is to be aware of your writing, and particularly to think about your audience and their needs.