Against a tight deadline or under pressure, a writer will naturally use familiar verbal patterns rather than thinking up new ones. Inexperienced writers, however, will sometimes go further and string together overused phrases or even sentences. Consider the following example:
- When all is said and done, even a little aid can go a long way in a country suffering from famine.
The argument is commendable, but its written expression is poor and unoriginal. First, consider the phrase when all is said and done. At one time, this phrase was clever and original, but so many writers and speakers have used it so many times over so many years that the phrase has become automatic and nearly meaningless. This type of worn-out phrase is called a catchphrase, and you should avoid it in your writing, unless you are quoting someone.
A cliché is a particularly stale catchphrase—especially one which was once very clever. In the example above, the phrase a little aid can go a long way fits into the formula a little can go a long way and seriously lowers the quality of the writing. Essentially, a cliché is a catchphrase that can make people groan out loud, but the difference between the two is not that important—just remember that neither generally belongs in your writing.
Here are some of the more common clichés and catchphrases:
- the dictionary defines as . . .
- key to the future
- facing a dim future
- drive a wedge between
- starving students
- enough (for ) to handle
- in today’s world
- the generation
- the impossible dream
- enough to worry about without . . .
- putting the cart before the horse
- a bird in the hand
- glitzy, high-tech world
There is no simple formula that you can apply to decide what is a cliché or a catchphrase, but the more you read, the better your sense of judgment will become. Note that if you think a phrase in your writing is clever, and you know someone has used it before, it would be better to rewrite it in your own words.
Special considerations for catchphrases
While clichés and catchphrases have no place in formal writing, there are some types of writing where you should use pre-existing formulas. Such documents include scientific papers, legal briefs, maintenance logs, police reports, and so on. These types of texts are highly repetitive and largely predictable in their language, but they are meant to convey highly technical information in a standard, well-defined format, not to persuade or entertain a reader. Creativity in an auditor’s report, for example, would not be highly prized.
In less technical areas, catchphrases are not appropriate. Journalists, especially, are under pressure to produce a large amount of writing quickly, and those who are less able to deal with the pressure often end up writing entire articles made up of overused catchphrases like war-torn Bosnia, grieving parents or besieged capital.
Copyright notice for HyperGrammar 2
© Department of English, Faculty of Arts, University of Ottawa
A tool made available online by the Translation Bureau, Public Services and Procurement Canada