Janet Sumner Johnson
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Conquering Clichés, Part 2: Ways to be Cliché

Jan 12, 2011 Uncategorized 19 comments

I only intended one post on clichés, but in writing it, there was so much information I had to break it up:

Conquering Clichés, Part 1: Introduction
Conquering Clichés, Part 2: Ways to be Cliché
Conquering Clichés, Part 3: Why We are Cautioned Against Them
Conquering Clichés, Part 4: Using Them . . . or Not

The whole idea of clichés fascinates me! Basically, someone expressed an idea in such a unique, amazing, succinct way that everyone jumped on the bandwagon to use it. And *POOF*, suddenly it’s not so unique. Just another overused expression that may or may not mean what you think it means.

I found a cliché dictionary1 at the library that claims over 3,500 clichés! While I’d never heard some of them before, there were more that I knew. Perhaps I was influenced by my mom who had a saying for every situation, but I think part of why clichés sneak so easily into our writing is because we all naturally use them in speech without even realizing we’re doing it.

Learning to recognize clichés is the first step to conquering them—meaning, using them to your advantage rather than vice versa. In this post, I simply want to lay out a few examples of clichés.

Betty Kirkpatrick, in her book on clichés2 attempts to categorize them, which I find extremely useful. Here are some of her categories with my attempt to explain them: 

Simile Clichés: All those overused comparisons (often using ‘like’ or ‘as’)

Proverb Clichés: Commonly known/used sayings or expressions, often giving advice

Idiom Clichés: (Akin to proverb clichés.) Overused expressions where the meaning does not equal the sum of the parts (i.e. the meaning is figurative instead of literal).

Allusion Clichés: An overused phrase that alludes/refers to an idea or story

Doublet Clichés: Two words joined by ‘and’ WAY too often

Euphemism Clichés: Overused phrases that refer to “unmentionables”

And I wanted to add a few categories that seem to flood my life: 

Plot Clichés: Overused plot devices

Character Clichés: Those characters who show up all too often

Parent Clichés: All those things your parents said that you swore you would never say to your own kids

Personal Clichés: Here you have to dig deep in your own life. What is that favorite expression (or four) you keep using? For writing, critique partners can help ferret them out. For life, a close friend probably knows best.

Hopefully this gives you a good idea of the types of clichés that exist, and the various places they can sneak into. While I’ll say more on this in Part 4, I don’t think we should learn about clichés to ban them from our speech and writing.

Rather, by understanding them and recognizing them, we are in control of the meaning of our words. We need to know what clichés are to use (or not use) them in an effective manner.

And as G.I. Joe would say (in a now extremely clichéd expression), “and knowing is half the battle!”


1. Ammer, Christine, The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés, New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2001.

2. Kirkpatrick, Betty, Clichés: Over 1500 Phrases Explored and Explained, n.p.: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999.

P.S. So there were 16 clichés in my first post, which no one guessed exactly, but being the magnanimous person I am 😉 R. Garrett Wilson, was the closest with 14 as his official guess, but 15 suspected clichés. So I hereby declare him to be the winner of a candy bar of his choice. Congrats Garrett!


19 Responses to “Conquering Clichés, Part 2: Ways to be Cliché”

  1. Those who write YA should also check out the most recent issue of SCBWI Bulletin. There's an article about overused tropes that have fallen into the "cliche" category–more the plot and character type than turns of phrase. It's eye opening!

    BTW, I love the fact you have a bibliography to your post. My scholarly-journal-editor self smiled at that.

  2. Summer Ross says:

    Great post and well referenced.

  3. Cliches are definitely a death knell in most cases (sometimes dialogue cliches are okay, because it can fit the personality of the speaker to use old proverbs/idioms and such).

    I can relate to having to break up posts–when I started posting about them I realized the topic was just way too big to cover in a single post!

    Looking forward to the series.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  4. This is an awesome post! I love how you divide them into catagories.

  5. This is great information! Thanks!

  6. Amazing list, Janet. Thank you!

    You know, in full confession mode, I wasn't clear what a cliche was until a few years ago. I think I found out when I started writing more seriously and critique partners were labelling this and that "cliche." I had to look up what it meant!

    Thanks for the great information!

  7. Joanne says:

    This is a great reference post, Janet. I like the idea of breaking them into categories. Giving them this distinction helps us be even more aware of them, and of the various ways we might use them.

  8. Candyland says:

    FABULOUS! These are things easily overlooked and I'm sure I've been guilty.

  9. Christopher says:

    Well damn. That's a lot to think about. I'm pretty sure everything I've ever done has been a cliche. I really need to think a bit more to see if it's possible to even do something that isn't.

    This actually hits on a lot of things to think about. Like, whats the difference between using a character cliche and an archetype?

  10. Melissa says:

    I didn't even realize all of these were cliches! Thank you for laying it all out for us! I want to read this dictionary.

  11. To some extent you can't weed all cliche's out, can you? Especially doublet and euphemism types. I know most can be distracting, but it feels like you could easily throw the baby out with the bathwater (see my euphemistic skillz?) by hunting down every cliche.

  12. I guess that was more of a proverb or idiom…

  13. Ugh. I have to work out the kinks on my plots. I tend to gravitate toward cliches there.

  14. Emy Shin says:

    It's easy to fall into plot and character cliches–and they're much harder to recognize than cliche phrases.

  15. WritingNut says:

    This is extremely useful Janet.. thank you so much! I'm definitely guilty of that "turned to look" one. I think my characters turn to look at everything!

  16. Lynn says:

    Very informative and useful information. Sometimes I mix up cliches with over-used phrases. Those references you cited will help me alot.

  17. Victoria says:

    Great post! Would you believe I found a cliche in MTC and not only was it a cliche, it was ANACHRONISTIC! How many readers have read this thing? How often have *I* read it? An Anachronistic cliche. Ouch. That hurt.

  18. She turned to look at him–ouch from me. I have used that sooooo much and always in my revisions go back and delete delete. I didn't know there were so many categories of cliches! You made me fear for my WIP! LOL

  19. OMG! How did I miss this last week!!!!!

    You're on cool links this Friday!

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