Cliches – how to recognise them

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Cliches – definition

cliches Cliches are hackneyed phrases or expressions.

redbtn The phrases might once have been fresh or striking, but they have become tired through over-use.


“He was over the moon about that goal.”
“Yes please. I don’t mind if I do.”
Far be it from me…”
“I would be the last person to cast aspersions.”
We will leave leave no stone unturned in our search.


redbtn Clichés are often used unconsciously in casual speech.

redbtn They usually suggest mental laziness or the lack of original thought.

redbtn They should be avoided in writing.

redbtn NB! Beware. Cliché may sometimes be used consciously for ironic effect.

redbtn Clichés circulate in the spoken language very readily, because they save people having to think.

redbtn When written down, they appear even more tired and vacuous than when spoken.

redbtn Traditional examples are expressions such as it takes the biscuit, back to square one and a taste of his own medicine.

redbtn Current favourites (in the UK) include the bottom line is …, a whole different ball game, living in the real world, a level playing field, and moving the goalposts.

redbtn Clichés present a temptation, because they often seem to be just what is required to make an effect. They do the trick. They hit the nail on the head. They are just what the doctor ordered. [See what I mean?]

redbtn Here is a stunning compilation, taken from a provincial newspaper. The example is genuine, but the names have been changed to protect the innocent. [That’s a deliberate example!]

By their very nature cabarets tend to be a bit of a hit and miss affair. And Manchester’s own ‘Downtown Cabaret’ is ample proof of that. When it was good it was very good, and when it was bad it was awful. Holding this curate’s egg together was John Beswick acting as compere and keeping the hotchpotch of sketches and songs running along smoothly. And his professionalism shone through as he kept his hand on the tiller and steered the shown through a difficult audience with his own brand of witticism. Local playwright Alan Chivers had previously worked like a Trojan and managed to marshal the talents of a bevy of Manchester’s rising stars.

redbtn It isn’t always easy to see where an idiomatic expression ends and a cliché begins.

redbtn The essential difference between them is that an idiom is not being offered as original thought. We say ‘fish and chips’ because people do not normally say ‘chips and fish’ (because it’s more difficult to say). But anybody who says he’s ‘over the moon’ about something has chosen the expression, no doubt thinking that it’s impressive.

redbtn A vogue word is very close to the cliché. This is an item of vocabulary whose meaning is becoming blurred, distorted, or inflated [that is, emptied] through over-use.

redbtn The term ‘vogue’ implies that the word is currently fashionable.

  • That’s a fantastic dress! [very nice]
  • We’re in a war situation. [at war]
  • It’s a brilliant novel. [interesting]
  • She’ll get paranoid about it. [become worried]
  • What a fabulous car! [remarkable]

redbtn The use of these terms is very common in everyday speech. They should be avoided in formal writing.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2003

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