What is a cliché?
Dictionaries vary in particulars about the definition of cliché, but they all agree that a cliché is not a good thing; you will not find a definition that assesses clichés appreciatively, and chances are that when you use the word, it is either to lament that you do not have at hand a better expression, or to suggest that someone else’s expression suffers from a want of originality or effort.
Despite the low regard in which we all hold clichés, we all use them, certainly in speech, if not in writing. Is there a contradiction here? Does it make sense for us to use expressions frequently that we are also ready to disparage as soon as we spot them? Clichés earn their name by the fact of their frequency, and their frequency is testament to the way in which we readily find uses for them. A cliché in its proper place does an effective job unobtrusively, very often with both significant semantic and pragmatic features. We only find them grating or unfortunate in contexts where something more powerful than a cliché is needed and we recognize that the speaker or writer has thrown away an opportunity to be creative, taking the path of least resistance instead, inserting an expression that is familiar, probably concise, and unfortunately dead on arrival.
Imagine the writer of a letter to the editor, perhaps undertaking the exercise of writing this sort of public letter for the first time: he or she probably has a couple of specific goals in mind. One is to maximize the possibility that the letter will be published. Another, related to this idea, is to sound convincing and authoritative. How might the novice letter writer achieve these two goals? One tack is to try making the letter to the editor sound as much like other published letters to the editor as possible. And how is this accomplished? By copying phrases wholesale from other published letters to editors. Thus is a small genre of cliché born.
Examples of clichés
Here are a few clichés I’ve scooped up from casual perusal of some letters to the editor online:
I read with great interest your article on…
I read your article on _______________ and I had to put in my two cents.
Your article should be required reading for women/members of congress/teenagers who drive (etc.).
I must take issue with your article on ______________.
Your article on ________________ brought tears to my eyes.
Your article on ______________ was right on target/was very welcome/could not have come at a better time.
Are all of these really clichés? Perhaps some of them are formulas, and that’s a distinction I treat in my book, It’s Been Said Before, an exploration of the power of clichés in the life of language. Without clichés, linguistic expression would certainly involve more effort. Clichés give us the liberty to slip in a ready-made phrase with the confidence that it will guide the reader or listener down the path that we have laid out for them. Without clichés we would miss the opportunity to find the point of common ground with our audience that comes from knowing they will recognize and identify with a commonplace way of expressing an idea. But if all writers and speakers did this just as often as was desirable, and no more, the idea of cliché and its attendant associations of overuse and ineffectiveness would never have arisen. However, clichés are usually the result of haste, lack of attention and care, and sometimes ignorance of the alternatives. I’ve tried to set out in my book some sensible guidelines for speakers and writers to recognize when they are slipping into cliché for the wrong reasons, and ways to avoid doing this.