Tired, trite, overused — clichés have their detractors. But when used well and in the correct context, they can succinctly express a writer’s view, an emotion or an idea. Orin Hargraves’ It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés serves as a concise and lively guide to the most overused phrases in the English language as well as to phrases that are used exactly as often as they should be.
One man’s cliché is another man’s mot juste; as Hargraves states in his introduction, ‘…a phrase might be considered a cliché in one context, while seeming to be a model of clarity and effectiveness in another’. How does one define a cliché when most judgments are subjective? When asked to supply an example of a cliché, people frequently offer up an idiom or a proverb instead. Of course, idioms can be clichés but not all clichés are necessarily idioms. So when does an expression, an idiom or a proverb become a cliché? Hargraves maintains that a phrase becomes a cliché when it is overused, misapplied, or used incorrectly. What constitutes inappropriate use and how does one judge its effectiveness? Hargraves explores these questions systematically and convincingly in this book, breaking clichés down into six groups and organizing chapters accordingly:
- Adjectival and quantifying
- Framing devices
- Modifier fatigue
- Clichés in tandem
Examples, drawn from data about actual usage, illuminate Hargraves’ commentary on usage problems and support helpful suggestions for eliminating clichés where they serve no useful purpose.
Hargraves makes it clear that he is not against the use of clichés in writing and maintains that originally most clichés were witty, funny or at the very least apt; he argues that it is overuse that gives clichés a bad name. Clichés, used correctly, can add a level of informality to the written word or discourse.
Clichés appear to be used more frequently in particular genres, which Hargraves flags within the relevant synopsis, sometimes very amusingly! Journalists, bloggers and authors of online fiction are named and shamed as they often produce text that is cliché ridden. What these three groups of writers have in common is that they tend to work to tight deadlines and/or do not have access to an editorial team.
So what type of clichés escape Hargraves’ withering putdowns?
- Idiomatic expressions with that evoke images of objects not usually encountered in everyday life, e.g. ‘tip of the iceberg’.
- Examples that have an economy of expression, e.g. ‘shed light’.
- Clichés with alliteration or that offer euphonious prosodic pattern, e.g. ‘part and parcel’.
It’s Been Said Before is an enjoyable exploration of popular phrases in the English language, and their (mis)application in a wide range of genres. It is a great book to dip in and out of and will appeal to readers with an interest in language and lexicography. Hargraves’ love of the language, his use of examples, and his engaging tone make this an engaging read.
As a blogger myself, I have taken close note of Hargraves’ emphasis throughout his book that writers need to be mindful and that words work best when they are specifically chosen; and will endeavor to apply what I have learnt about the use and abuse of clichés in my writing!
Orin Hargraves is a lexicographer and author. He grew up in the mountains of southwestern Colorado and graduated from the University of Chicago. A past president of the Dictionary Society of North America, Hargraves has contributed to dozens of dictionaries and other language reference books. He currently lives in Niwot, Colorado, and researches the computational use of language at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés is available from the Oxford University Press website or check your preferred bookshop for availability.
Available (published August 2014)