Guilford College Writing Manual

This is the official Guilford College Writing Manual. A collaboration between the English Department and the Hege Library.

Avoiding Cliches

What do the following phrases have in common?

  • kick the bucket
  • on the face of it
  • only time will tell
  • pass the buck
  • neat as a pin
  • mixed blessings
  • monkey on [or off] one's back
  • irons in the fire
  • lend a helping hand
  • lock, stock, and barrel
  • heap coals on the fire
  • hot potato
  • hopping mad
  • hit the nail on the head

I could go on  . . .  and on  . . .  and on. There are hundreds of such expressions. All of them are cliches, that is, trite, overused phrases. The word itself comes from French clicher, a word imitating the repeated sound a stereotype plate would make in the printing process (i.e., when it reproduced the same page over and over again).

The first time they were used, these phrases were probably hot stuff: metaphors that stimulated a concrete picture in the reader's mind. But now no one sees a picture when they hear these phrases. They're just overused word units that display writerly laziness. Sometimes they can betray you into outright error. Someone who writes "for all intensive purposes," for example, is not only using a cliche but using it incorrectly, because the correct (!) form of this cliche is "for all intents and purposes." Probably the worst example of a misused clichÈ I know of came from a long-ago student of mine who should have known better than to write "chip off the old shoulder."

Language critic William Safire jokingly advises, "avoid clichè like the plague."