Thread: Tracking and Analyzing Cliched Language

Mitchell and I have been discussing to what degree one should avoid the use of cliches in writing. I find that this discussion seeps into my consciousness when I’m writing, making me more aware of cliches, or possible cliches, in my writing. Additionally, sometimes when I’m in the process of writing, I write what I think might be a cliche, and I’m curious to know Mitchell’s opinion–on whether it’s a cliche and the alternate he would use instead. But I usually forget these specific examples. This thread will be a for these examples, as well as to discuss this topic more generally. By the way, I thought of this topic precisely because I was in the process of writing a sentence that I thought was cliched. Here’s the sentence: “Her judgment may not be as rock solid as she thought.” Is “rock solid” a cliche? I thought it might be so I changed it to “reliable.” But then I thought: Is “reliable” a significantly better word choice–i.e., does it significantly improve the writing? What say, you Mitchell? (Also, I think one of the obstacles in this discussion is the definition of cliche–or more specifically, properly recognizing and labeling a cliche. I hope we can discuss that topic here, too.)

12 thoughts on “Thread: Tracking and Analyzing Cliched Language

  1. There’s a second part to the sample sentence I mention above, which also has a potential cliche:

    This is not to say that the consensus over who deserves the most respect is valid, but the judgment may not be so rock solid especially if the person lives in the present, versus someone from the past, who has stood the test of time.

    The italicized phrases seem like cliches to me. Should they be changed? And if so I’d like to see alternates (because then we can better judge if alternatives make the writing better).

  2. Mitchell,

    Does your approach to cliches also apply to song lyrics? I ask because in looking at “Where the Streets Have No Name,” I feel like there are passages that are cliched. The one that first caught my attention:

    I’ll show you a place
    High on a desert plain

    “High on a desert plain” seems cliched. There are other examples from the song. My sense is that what supersedes the cliche is a need to find words that rhyme. I’m not sure what to think. I like the lyrics of the song, but a part of me does feel like the cliched language does take a little away from it.

  3. I was going to write the following:

    Also, lest we rest on our laurels, authoritarians often come back to power.

    I changed that to

    Also, lest we become too complacent,…

    Is the second sentence significantly better? What would be a better sentence? Is the first sentence so bad?

    1. The second sentence isn’t significantly better, but it’s better. The first one’s not “so bad” and I wouldn’t judge a writer who wrote it, unless there were similar sentences in the same piece. Again, some things make a little difference and some things make a big difference. The things that make a little difference are many, and they add up one way or another.

  4. Okie dokie. I don’t really expect anyone to read this whole thing, so if you’re interested in the idea but not the hard reading, just skip to my summary at the end.

    I spent ten days just jotting down interesting phrases (interesting for whatever reason) and looking out for cliches in my media reading. I’ll put the cliches in italics if you just want to skim for those. Assume everything else is just something I found interesting in the moment. I can’t even remember why I saved some of these, but in the interest of completion, I left it all in.

    Reminder: My aim was simply to see how often the writers I read, whom I generally consider models of good writing, use cliches.

    A ten-day cliche hunt beginning 8/21

    E. J. Dionne Jr.
    “The GOP convention will be no summer of love”
    “He will try to efface Biden’s image of empathy and decency with a ghoulish cartoon sketch of a man under the control of radical forces.”

    “If the Democrats painted an optimistic picture of a country that could achieve racial justice and national unity, Trump will paint a dark caricature (my color choice is not accidental) of a country facing disorder and chaos under the Democrats.”

    Washington Post Editorial Board
    “Americans need a compromise on the economy. Trump must allow one.”
    (there are two rhetorical question in this piece, but I’m not tracking those for this short project)

    Jennifer Rubin
    “The first job of a Biden administration: Getting to, and telling, the truth”
    “But there is also the power of example. The White House and the president personally set the tone.” (minor cliche)

    Washington Post Editorial Board
    “The Republican Party announces that it stands for nothing.”

    E. J. Dionne Jr.
    “Trump’s ‘12 more years’ shout shows what he has in common with autocrats.”

    Catherine Rampell
    “The GOP isn’t even pretending to stand for anything anymore”
    “Exactly the same, only more so. But also, in some ways, the opposite. Or perhaps nothing at all.”

    “No promises, no policy stances, nothing. Just a bootlicking, blank-check pledge to support anything Trump decides to do, no matter how erratic or lawless, and a (re)confirmation that the party is nothing more than a cult of personality.”

    Robin Givhan
    “The Democrats’ roll call showed America’s beauty and diversity. The Republicans’ roll call . . . did not.”
    “The camera’s framing trapped each speaker in an uninspiring rectangle. The only reminder that the Republicans were live from a Charlotte ballroom were the disembodied cheers that would periodically erupt in the background — perfunctory, desperate noise from a greatly reduced throng.”

    “They were reveling in the sweaty urgency of their law-and-order, build-a-wall, liberty-and-justice-for-me message.” (nice cliche turn)

    “Trump is their neighborhood watchman, rattling all the doors to make sure they’re firmly shut.”

    Ann Hornaday
    “Long-delayed drama ‘The Banker’ is a handsome yet occasionally dull business.” (ha!)


    Jennifer Rubin
    “What Katie Porter taught us at the DeJoy hearing.”

    Teo Armas
    “Kimberly Guilfoyle trashed California. She goes way back with two of the state’s most important Democrats.”

    Barry Svrluga
    “There’s a saying in baseball: You are what the numbers on the back of your baseball card say you are.” (not a cliche but maybe to some?)

    Jennifer Rubin
    “Another insider attests that Trump is a threat to Americans.”

    Tina Tchen
    “I worked at the White House. It shouldn’t be a Trump prop.”

    Jennifer Rubin
    “The five dumbest Republican arguments for Trump”

    Washington Post Editorial Board
    “Trump isn’t calling for unity. He’s stoking rage.”
    “Amid a widening sense that restraint is fraying and grievances have become intractable, no countervailing emollient force can rival the potency of the president’s bullhorn.” (nice phrasing)

    John Brennan
    “Trump will suffocate the intelligence community to get reelected.”

    Eugene Robinson
    “Scared that Trump can come back to beat Biden? Good.”
    “Anyone who is hair-on-fire alarmed that President Trump might lie, cheat and steal his way to reelection should hold on to that attitude through Election Day.”

    Dana Milibank
    “Cornered, Trump tries to foment a race war”

    Aaron Blake
    “Trump’s illuminating defense of Kyle Rittenhouse”

    Jennifer Rubin
    “Trump is too loony even for Laura Ingraham”
    “Maybe Republicans will actually insist the president was telling the truth, making them also sound like they’ve also gone around the bend.”

    Greg Sargent
    “The latest polling evidence suggests Trump’s convention flopped”
    “This strongly suggests a sizable majority still does not see current unrest as a sign that a frightening wave of radicalism is sweeping across the land, portending the sort of imminent collapse that Trump’s convention sought to portray.”

    Alyssa Rosenberg
    “Should you see ‘Tenet’ in a movie theater? Here’s how to think about that choice.”

    Peter Wehner
    “Why Trump Supporters Can’t Admit Who He Really Is”
    “Still, in the minds of Trump’s supporters lingers the belief that a Biden presidency would usher in a reign of terror.”

    “The danger of this mindset—in which the means, however unethical, justify the ends of survival—is obvious.”

    “They have accepted, excused, and applauded Trump’s behavior and tactics, allowing his ends to justify his means.”

    Paul Waldman
    “Like most Trump properties, the president’s campaign is a financial mess”
    “For all the good it did him, he might as well have stuffed the cash into a rocket and blasted it into the sun.” (nice image)

    David Frum
    “Everyone knows it’s true.”

    “Imagine a man who has lived in the public eye for half a century, supposedly one of the country’s leading business figures, and when in trouble he struggles to summon credible or trustworthy witnesses from outside the Fox Cinematic Universe. There’s just a gaping zero where goodness should be.”

    Summary: I tried to use a very liberal filter for cliches — some would argue a few of my choices aren’t really cliches, especially since they’re not figurative (which I think makes them a little more okay), just so I wouldn’t slant the data in favor of my position. I also would bet money that several cliches just skipped past my eyes without my noticing them, partly because I don’t always read super closely but also because my brain tends to pay no attention to cliches when it can.

    I looked at 25 pieces of writing in the time period and identified 10 cliches, but three of them are from the same writer in the same piece, and I don’t even know who this writer is. I think the argument could be made that the reason for the three cliches is the writer was building on the cliche, not merely using it as a crutch, but I still think there was a better way.

    Take out that one piece, and you have 24 pieces of writing with 7 cliches. Still more than I would have predicted. If you take out the ones that aren’t blatant, I think the numbers look a lot more like what I would expect.

    Anyway. An interesting exercise.

    1. I’ll try to go through the examples later, but for clarification, did you look at the entire articles for cliches or just the sentences that stood out to you?

      Are cliches generally figurative? I guess they are, but I also think certain non-figurative phrases or word combinations are similar to cliches. I can’t think of any specifics right now, but I’ll try to and post them here.

      1. I don’t think I understand your question. These are selected passages from articles (not news, since that’s a different kind of writing entirely, but analysis and commentary) I read. I don’t read all of everything I look at, but I don’t consider something read if I haven’t read the entire thing.

        did you look at the entire articles for cliches or just the sentences that stood out to you?

        As I read stuff, I jotted down cliches and any interesting passages I liked. I wasn’t looking for cliches within sentences that stood out; I just copied and pasted cliches when I saw them. I feel like I’m not answering the question.

    2. I’m asking if you scanned the 24 pieces of writing completely–not just identifying cliches that occurred in the sentences that stood out for you. It sounds like you read the entire article and if there were cliches you’d tabulated that somewhere. Yes?

      In some the examples above, wouldn’t “hair on fire,” “bootlicking,” “blank check” also be cliches?

      What would be superior alternative for “ends justifies the means?”

      1. Yeah I kept a running document for ten days. With stuff I pulled out of stuff I read in its entirety.

        Yeah those are good examples. I’ll have to go look again.

  5. Does your approach to cliches also apply to song lyrics? I ask because in looking at “Where the Streets Have No Name,” I feel like there are passages that are cliched. The one that first caught my attention:

    I’ll show you a place
    High on a desert plain

    This is tricky for a few reasons. Ideas of good writing in song lyrics and prose are really different, and trying to apply one to the other can be super frustrating. Even simple rules of grammar and punctuation just don’t work with song lyrics, because at their essence, lyrics are poetry.

    But there are other considerations. If the lyric is cliche but it’s over totally non-cliche music, it’s totally forgiveable. I’m actually more critical of cliched, obvious rhymes (“love” with “above,” for example, which I think every Christian lyricist ever has used at least once).

    Sometimes what really matters is the way the song makes you feel, and if cliches do the trick (because of great music, or some other reason), it can still be a great song. I find this especially true of praise and worship songs.

    So my answer is: I have no blanket opinion. A song has far too many factors to judge the words alone on any single set of criteria.

    “High on a desert plain” seems cliched. There are other examples from the song. My sense is that what supersedes the cliche is a need to find words that rhyme. I’m not sure what to think. I like the lyrics of the song, but a part of me does feel like the cliched language does take a little away from it.

    Interesting. I did a Google search for “high on a desert plain” minus identifying qualities to strip out as many U2 references as I could. If you’re interested, it’s here. Basically “high on a desert plain” minus U2, “where the streets have no name,” “show you a place,” and “lyrics.”

    I still got 5870 hits, but if you skim the first few pages, almost everything is either a reference to another song or to Joshua Tree National Park or the Mojave Desert, which is where U2 shot their iconic cover art for The Joshua Tree. In the case of the park and desert, did U2 apply a cliche to this specific location, and did the phrase come to be associated with the location? Or was it already associated with the location when U2 used it as a song lyric? I’m utterly unfamiliar with the phrase outside the context of U2 — where else have you come across it?

    Here’s the thing, though, even if it’s a cliche: since U2 isn’t singing about Joshua Tree National Park when they sing that lyric, they’re basically applying it figuratively to something else. Is the figurative sense a cliche too? Again, I’ve only heard it in context of U2 so I don’t have an answer. In other words, did people use “high on a desert plain” figuratively to describe non-desert, non-plain places before U2 did it?

    Of course the very first lyric of the song is a better example: I want to run, I want to hide. I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside.

    I’m inclined not to think of it as truly cliche, since in combination with the music and U2’s performance of the song, it’s one moment in an otherwise terrific piece of music. “Reach out and touch the flame” is new to me here, as are “where the streets have no name.” And The Edge’s iconic playing here (I’m using the word intentionally because it really is an iconic album) was so different it was a large theme in that Time magazine cover story on the album.

    1. So my answer is: I have no blanket opinion. A song has far too many factors to judge the words alone on any single set of criteria.

      That makes sense to me. Cliches seem to work or be more acceptable in the context of a song–or at least some songs.

      “I’ll show you a place/High on a desert plain” may not be cliched, but the language is kind of insipid, and not surprising and fresh. Same with the language that precedes it:

      The city’s aflood
      And our love turns to rust
      We’re beaten and blown by the wind
      Trampled in dust
      I’ll show you a place
      High on a desert plain
      Where the streets have no name

      The images/metaphors and overall language seem kinda weak to me–which is essentially the criticism of cliches. But to me, what makes it work is the ending line. And that happens in other verses as well.

      In terms of the lyrics, besides the line–“where the streets have no name,” I like the rest of lines in the chorus:

      We’re still building
      Then burning down love
      Burning down love
      And when I go there
      I go there with you
      It’s all I can do

      “Burning down love” is not very original, but building then burning makes it a little more interesting to me. And as you point out there’s the music, too. (On a side note, analyzing lyrics like this is cumbersome.)

      1. Bono’s lyrics were very Christian on this album (“You broke the bonds, loosed the chains, carried the cross and all my shame — you know I believe it…”), so I took the streets without names to be something like a poetic concept of heaven. Better than streets paved with gold, an image I’ve always hated. So “I’ll show you a place / high on a desert plain” never sounded insipid to me, but I can see where others would respond this way.

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