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Avoiding clichés

Avoiding clichés

Well–worn phrases and expressions have a tendency to creep into people's speech or writing without their realizing it. Here's a list of 20 popular (or unpopular!) clichés, ranked in order of their frequency in the Oxford English Corpus, a database consisting of hundreds of millions of words of contemporary written English.

Rank Cliché
1 at the end of the day
2 back on track
3 the fact of the matter
4 few and far between
5 a level playing field
6 in this day and age
7 to all intents and purposes
8 when all's said and done
9 in the final analysis
10 come full circle
11 par for the course
12 avoid someone or something like the plague
13 think outside the box
14 in the current climate
15 mass exodus
16 at this moment in time
17 the path of least resistance
18 a baptism of fire
19 in any way, shape, or form
20 not fit for purpose

Try to avoid using clichés in college assignments or job applications. They tend to annoy people and may create an impression of laziness or a lack of careful thought. They can even become a barrier to communication, as people may tune out when they hear a tired, overused phrase and so miss the very point that you're trying to make.

Taking action!

Once you've spotted a cliché in your writing, you need to rephrase your sentence so that it conveys your intended meaning in fresher and more effective language. This section gives suggestions on how to use a thesaurus or a dictionary to help you select alternatives for some of the overused phrases in the table above.

What does it mean?

Think about the basic sense of the cliché you've identified: what does it actually mean? You'll often find that certain key words come to mind, either as synonyms themselves or as 'ingredients' of the expression's meaning. You may be able to use one of these key words as a synonym for the cliché, or else you can look them up in a thesaurus to find other alternatives. If you have difficulty thinking of the basic meaning, look the expression up in a dictionary and use the words in the definition as a starting point for finding suitable synonyms in a thesaurus. You could also ask a friend for their opinion.

Do you need it?

Quite a lot of clichéd expressions are really just 'fillers', words or groups of words without any real meaning. They tend to be used to give emphasis, to maintain the flow of speech, or just to prevent uncomfortable gaps in a conversation. But you should try to eliminate this sort of cliché from your written work: they might increase the length of your essay or assignment, but they won't improve the quality of your writing.

Here are some examples of how you might go about replacing clichés in your work. First you'll see a sentence which uses a cliché (highlighted in red), then some suggestions for how to take action, and finally the original sentence rewritten without the cliché.

1. In this day and age, websites are one of the most significant public faces of any organization.

Expression: in this day and age

Meaning or key words: nowadays, today

Suggestions for action: use one of the key words instead or look up synonyms for them in a thesaurus

Alternative sentence: Today, websites are one of the most significant faces of any organization.
2. His first job, in an industrial area of the UK, proved to be a baptism of fire.

Expression: a baptism of fire

Meaning or key words: a difficult introduction to a new job or activity

Suggestions for action: find synonyms for the key words

Alternative sentence: His first job, in an industrial area of the UK, proved to be a difficult start to his career.
3. The long–term prospects for the service are looking fairly bleak at this moment in time.

Expression: at this moment in time

Meaning or key words: now

Suggestions for action: use the key word or look up alternatives for it

Alternative sentence: The long–term prospects for the service are currently looking fairly bleak.
4. At the end of the day, it is the minister himself who has to make the decision.

Expression: at the end of the day

Meaning or key words: finally, ultimately

Suggestions for action: use one of the key words or look up alternatives

Alternative sentence: Ultimately, it is the minister himself who has to make the decision.
5. The authorities announced that they would not tolerate drugs within the sport in any way, shape, or form.

Expression: in any way, shape, or form

Meaning or key words: under any circumstances

Suggestions for action: mainly used for emphasis, either omit or use the key words shown

Alternative sentence: The authorities announced that they would not tolerate drugs within the sport.
6. In the closing scenes the film comes full circle.

Expression: come full circle

Meaning or key words: return to a previous position or situation

Suggestions for action: reword along the lines of the meaning given

Alternative sentence: In the closing scenes the film returns to the ideas with which it began.
7. The 1970s were a time when detention without trial was par for the course.

Expression: par for the course

Meaning or key words: what is normal or expected in a given situation

Suggestions for action: reword along the lines of the meaning given, use the key word, or look up synonyms

Alternative sentence: The 1970s were a time when detention without trial was a normal occurrence.
8. Children's services in the city's hospitals were not fit for purpose, according to the report.

Expression: be fit for purpose

Meaning or key words: meet the required standards

Suggestions for action: say 'meet the required standards' or find synonyms for the key words

Alternative sentence: Children's services in the city's hospitals were not meeting the required standards, according to the report.
9. The company considers that this requirement is, to all intents and purposes, impossible to achieve.

Expression: to all intents and purposes

Meaning or key words: in all important respects

Suggestions for action: mainly used for emphasis and can often be omitted

Alternative sentence: The company considers that this requirement is impossible to achieve.
10. With a troubled domestic agenda, the president took the path of least resistance.

Expression: the path of least resistance

Meaning or key words: the easiest course of action

Suggestions for action: reword along the lines of the meaning given, or find synonyms for the key words

Alternative sentence: With a troubled domestic agenda, the president chose the easiest course of action.

While you probably can't avoid clichés completely, remember that overusing them is likely to be a barrier to clear expression and give your reader the impression of laziness or a lack of careful thought.

For more help with identifying and avoiding clichés in your writing, see the Brush up your style section in the centre of the Compact Oxford Thesaurus for Students.

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