Clichés and how not to use them

Keep an ear out for clichés. No, not fashionable hats—those are cloches.Cloche hats—very different than clichés.

Clichés are fashionable too—if by “fashionable,” we mean that everyone uses them. But in the word-world, being ubiquitous is not necessarily a good thing.

Ever notice that when a tragedy happens, people flood the world with “thoughts and prayers”? A fine sentiment, and a fine phrase, but as one New York tabloid pointed out, thoughts and prayers don’t do much to stem a tide of violence. After The Daily News called out the empty “thoughts and prayers” rhetoric of do-nothing politicians, the phrase entered the red zone of phrases we can’t use without irony. Which may not be the total definition of cliché, but it’s definitely a subset.

Another common response to horror these days: “…there are no words.” This cliché fries me every time I see it—especially when it’s wielded by writers. Yes, I want to hiss, there are words. And you ought to know how to use them.

To clients, clichés seem like safe territory: Everyone else says it, so it must be okay. This always makes me think of my mother’s pointed question: “If everyone was jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you jump off the Brooklyn Bridge too?” (Do regional variations of this question exist? Please tweet ’em if you got ’em.)

Countering clichés

It takes strength to buck the rhetorical tide and say something new. But if you want to differentiate yourself—if you actually want people to hear what you’re saying—you’ve got to make your own statement. Be authentic. Talk about your feelings, your reactions.

Instead of “there are no words…” try: “I can’t even begin to imagine…” or “I am angry…” or “I am sad…” That’s the other problem with this cliché, as well as “thoughts and prayers”—they’re both passive constructions. Real involvement demands active verbs: I will pray. I will do. I am outraged.

Nothing is more powerful than real emotion. Weren’t you moved when tears started running down President Obama’s cheek as he spoke about gun violence? You don’t need to give a speech to move people—the written word can do it just as effectively. But you do need to write about how you feel—don’t hide behind clichés.

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  • writing