02
Aug
07

Tripping Over Clichés

I acknowledge that my writing can suffer from attacks of the cliché. It’s a habit that clutters my writing more often than I’d like and affects its clarity. Today I came across Let’s Think Outside the Box of Bad Clichés, a recent My Turn column in Newsweek that does an excellent job of describing writing’s version of a hangnail. Gregory Pence, a bioethics professor in Alabama, was distracted from grading student papers by the clichés:

Before I knew it, I had spent the afternoon not grading essays but cataloging the many trite or inaccurate phrases my students rely on to express themselves.

Pence goes on to highlight the lack of logic in many clichés:

Other times the expressions defy the rules of logic. A student in a philosophy class writes that philosophy “bores me to tears.” But if something brings him to tears, it’s certainly not boring.

When I worked in the university writing center as an undergrad, one of the most common errors was substituting a clear thought with a cliché. Pointing this practice out usually resulted in a blank stare. Attitudes reflected the notion that using something obvious seemed preferable to coming up with something original. Over time, some repeat visitors started to see that their papers could work without clichés.

It comes down to a question of accuracy. How strongly do you feel about the accuracy of your writing? Clichés rarely apply except in the most general of circumstances and explain very little. Maybe that’s why they’re so popular with politicians.

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