In The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White lay down the immortal injunction: “Omit needless words.” The injunction beautifully embodies the principle. It is a model of expressive form. Strunk and White drily observe: “Many expressions in common use violate this principle.”
To this rule I would add: Avoid clichés. They deaden writing. They are an enemy of clear thought.
In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal Barton Swaim reviews the new book It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés, by Orin Hargraves. Swaim’s review is behind the Journal’s annoying subscription paywall but is easily accessible via Google.
Summarizing Hargraves, Swaim writes:
What turns an idiom into a cliché is its frequent use in ways that hinder clarity rather than enhancing it. Mr. Hargraves asks us to consider the phrase “best-kept secret”—as when a magazine might boosterishly inform the reader that community colleges are “the best kept secret in higher education.” Hardly anything described as a “best kept secret” is actually a secret that anyone would wish to “keep.” You know what is meant, but the phrase gives you a moment of cognitive confusion that a careful writer or speaker will avoid when he can.
Many clichés seem as if they’re making an argument but really aren’t. Writers routinely use the phrase “world of difference,” as Mr. Hargraves points out, when speaking of what are ordinary or incremental differences: “The easing of restrictions will make a world of difference to livestock farmers.” Why world, other than that it indicates something very large? Will the easing of restrictions really revolutionize these farmers’ lives? Probably not.
That’s the trouble with clichés. You can’t help suspecting that the cliché-user isn’t thinking about what he is writing, or thinking it through. In some cases, you feel, the writer may just be attempting to fill space. A careful reader quickly becomes suspicious or hostile, sometimes without even realizing it.
Mr. Hargraves, a linguist at the University of Colorado, hasn’t just compiled a list of phrases that annoy him; his approach is systematic and nuanced. He has drawn around 600 clichés from the Oxford English Corpus (a database of 2.5 billion words from contemporary English-language texts). For each he estimates its frequency, indicates its typical source, provides several examples of its use, and advises readers on when the cliché is or isn’t appropriate.
Hargraves is not overly rigid on the avoidance of clichés. Swaim explains:
Clichés, he concedes, are an inevitable part of language, particularly spoken language, and even the most literate and circumspect among us can’t claim to be entirely cliché-free. Indeed, one of the valuable, if also painful, things about reading Mr. Hargraves’s book is the discovery that some of the phrases you rely on are probably clichés.
Like the gentleman in Moliere’s play who is surprised to discover that he had been speaking prose all his life, we are equally surprised to discover that we have been thinking/speaking/writing in clichés. Nevertheless, don’t double down on clichés, as some talking head on cable might put it.
A large proportion, if not the vast majority, of Mr. Hargraves’s clichés come from journalists. “Of all genres,” he writes, “. . . none is more cliché-burdened today than journalism. Journalism has been historically and continues to be the true home of the cliché.” That’s not so much because journalists are bad writers—though many are, to be sure—but because journalists have to write faster than anybody else. These days, furthermore, they have fewer and fewer editors to catch their stale phrases, with the result that news reports are often full of things coming of the woodwork, changing the political landscape and racing against the clock.
Journalists may read “It’s Been Said Before” from cover to cover, but most readers will want to take a more casual approach. After 20 or 25 pages of clichés, you feel reluctant to write anything at all, so mindful are you of their omnipresence. But maybe that’s, well, the whole point.
We can only do the best we can.
UPDATE: In an article on David Gregory’s dubious future as host of Meet the Press, Dylan Byers writes in Politico: “NBC looks set to double-down on the original formula.”