Stay away from the Cliche

Aug 22, 2013

Stay away from the Cliche

Aug 22, 2013


From the newsroom

Supriya Unni Nair

One of the easiest ways to kill a good piece of information, whether it’s for the web, print or visual media, is to smack a cliché on to it.

How many of us have heard an enthusiastic reporter on television covering an earthquake end his report by saying, “only time will tell when these people will get back on their feet.”

Or read a newspaper article on the efforts to protect the Tiger, just to be told; “only time will tell whether these efforts will help this dying species…” Or read a blog about a young accident victim’s journey back to normalcy, again ending like this, “Only time will tell how long Rick will take to get back on his feet….”

Many of us cringe at the use of a cliché, hoping that the writer would just be original, embrace everyday language and make their writing purposeful.  But sometimes, ‘even the mighty fall’ to the curse of the cliché. Take a look at this stereotypical paragraph about the Royal baby born to Prince William and Lady Kate Middleton, from an entertainment blog… ‘’They say he has the face of an angel. But it’s a face the world is yet to see. Only time will tell what lies in store for the future King of England. It is being said that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have prepared a nursery like none other, to welcome the royal baby; they have spared no expense to ensure it’s absolutely perfect in every way.’’

‘At the end of your rope’ already? Yes, I have peppered this article liberally with clichés so you can understand what it can do to a piece of writing. How many have you spotted so far?

Stand out from the rest

Clichés are well, just that – clichéd. The many words, phrases and sayings that people tend to overuse in the hope that it will make them sound like emperors of the English language, can actually make them sound banal and devoid of all originality. Did you know that “At the end of the day,” is so despised worldwide that is was recently voted the most hated cliché to ever be used? ‘’At the end of the day…” according to Chris Pash, from Dow Jones, is also the most overused cliché globally.  Pash searched through Dow’s huge Factiva article database and identified what he believes are the seven most over-used clichés in journalism.

1.       At the end of the day

2.       Split second

3.       About face

4.       Unsung Heroes

5.       Outpouring of support

6.       Last-ditch effort

7.       Concerned residents

The written and spoken word today is scattered with words and phrases which start off their existence with meaning, but have been overused so much that they become stale or even irritating.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary explains to us that clichés are trite phrases or expressions which convey hackneyed ideas, themes, characterizations or situations. Basically, they are usages which sadly end up annoying the reader.

Carlos Lozada, The Washington Post’s Outlook editor has written a humorous piece on the various words and phrases that have been identified by the newspaper as avoidable. I’m sure you will relate to most of the examples…

Here are few of the more amusing ones that Lozada found and explains:

Paradigm shift (in journalism, all paradigms are shifting)

Unlikely revolutionary (in journalism, all revolutionaries are unlikely)

Unlikely reformer (in journalism, all reformers are unlikely)

Grizzled veteran (in journalism, all veterans are grizzled — unless they are “seasoned”)

Manicured lawns (in journalism, all nice lawns are manicured)

Rose from obscurity (in journalism, all rises are from obscurity)

Dizzying array (in journalism, all arrays make one dizzy)

Withering criticism (in journalism, all criticism is withering)

Predawn raid (in journalism, all raids are predawn)

Sparked debate (or “raised questions”)

Why writers use clichés?

Using clichés is a trap that most writers fall into at some stage in their career. Those new to writing often succumb to the temptation of using clichés, especially to prove a point. Rookie reporters are known to begin or end a piece with a cliché and more often than not, irate bosses just hit the delete button. Most writers over time do understand that the mark of a good writer is originality and the ability to convey a piece of information in a clear, simple and direct manner.

The editors of Writing: A College Handbook (W. W. Norton, 2000) have bluntly stated the reason:  “Using worn-out phrases tells the reader that you have no imagination of your own.” But it’s not all about being a bit lazy either. News reporters, whatever their beat, want to make their stories interesting to the reader or the audience. And the way some chose to make the report interesting is to sound overly dramatic or “intelligent”.

Take the dramatic expression “snatched victory from the jaws of defeat”. This has been used so often that it has given birth to its corollary “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory” used by many sports writers in our country. Both are avoidable clichés.

Certain words can also end up being clichéd. A reporter may talk about the “erstwhile Soviet Union” and “erstwhile political allay” even in the headlines

Top fund backs Oxford Instruments after erstwhile darling’s June rout

Business journalists are forever talking about CEOs who “think out of the box” and business ideas as being “next- generation”. 

Web writing with its direct, conversational and sometimes non-traditional format, does not allow for overuse of clichés. Thanks to the option of reader feedback on blogs and online journals, writers who rely too heavily on clichés may often get comments which show that their piece had little impact on the reader.

Stay out of a cliché’s way

Why is it that people dislike clichés so much and roll their eyes every time they pop? The answer is simple:  Readers get bored. When efforts to make a report “interesting” end up with the reverse effect, the whole idea of your piece is lost. This is more relevant in today’s world as we have multiple sources of information to choose from.

How do we avoid using clichés?

The rules go back to the basics of reporting:

Do your homework – Get your facts right. Do not compromise on accuracy for the sake of decorating a report. State your facts, and report them as you see them, no embellishments and no drama.

If a news report clearly states what it has to, with precision, it automatically becomes interesting to the reader.

Be aware of your target audience – Access to information has become so easy nowadays that readers/audience have no time for weary long-winded text. Be brief and be clear.

Don’t use outdated words and phrases. For e.g., “Amongst” is a word that a lot of people use across the globe in all sorts of media, web, print and visual. It was commonly used in England in the 1200s! It means among. So why not use among?! When we have a simpler word, ditch the cliché.

Replace boring clichés

Now, this is not as hard as it looks. Here, the writer’s creative talent comes into play. For example, the “erstwhile” Soviet Union can be the former, and “hitherto” can be “so far”.

Stock phrases which are redundant should be kept redundant. “At the end of the day” can easily be deleted!  And instead of saying “it was raining cats and dogs when the accident happened”, think, use your Thesaurus if needed and just say “it was raining heavily.”

Want to know what to avoid? Take a peek at this link which has clichés in alphabetical order.

Where clichés may be relevant

It may not be possible to steer clear of clichés in all news reports all of the time. For example, legal and medical writing need certain clichés to be used.  ‘’Released on bail,’’ is always released on bail. Acquitted is NOT the same as released on bail.

In medical writing too, the technicality of the subject demands that some stock phrases stay. But these must be considered an exception and not the rule.

Most importantly, never end a piece with a cliché, especially ones like – ‘’All’s well that ends well’’, ‘’Life has come full circle’’ or ‘’It was a fairytale ending’’!

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